Monday, December 31, 2012

Year in Review

So...t'was New Year's Eve, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, now that Pawn Stars is over and my brother is putting his spawn to bed.  And here I sit on the computer updating my blog.  I've been home now for a couple of weeks, and I have one more day before I start the series of flights and layovers that will take me back to Mongolia.  I'll write more about what these two weeks have entailed when I DO get back, but for my last post of 2012 I thought I would reflect on what this year has brought (in one sentence or less per month)...
January - dumping the chump (more or less).
February - jobhunting.
March - a new job.
April - kicking the blog up a notch.
May - the insanity of putting together a school art exhibition and mopping up the yearbook simultaneously.
June - Evil's wedding which I missed because my non-Irish principal was a bitch.
July - South American Extravaganza!
August - moving to Mongolia.
September - making friends.
October - a new (inferior) quiz
November - X-Files revival
December - Babysister's baby.

This post was inspired by Five and Domestic Goddess' suggestion that I post my book list to my blog.  For the last three years I have kept track of the books I read over the year in a facebook note.  In 2011 I read a total of 70 books; just shy of 6 books a month.  I bettered my score by more than one book a month...and here are the books that helped me to make it to a grand total of 85 books (7 a month with one to spare!) in 2012:
1. Furies of Calderon, by Jim Butcher
2. Academ's Fury, by Jim Butcher
3. Cursor's Fury, by Jim Butcher
4. Captain's Fury, by Jim Butcher
5. Princep's Fury, by Jim Butcher
6. First Lord's Fury, by Jim Butcher
7. Mastiff,  by Tamora Pierce
8. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
9. The Red Pyramid, by Rick Riordan
10. Clockwork Prince, by Cassandra Clare
11. Dragonsong, by Anne McCaffrey
12. Dragonsinger, by Anne McCaffrey
13. Dragondrums, by Anne McCaffrey
14. The Throne of Fire, by Rick Riordan
15. Alanna, by Tamora Pierce
16. In the Hand of the Goddess, by Tamora Pierce
17. The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, by Tamora Pierce
18. Lioness Rampant, by Tamora Pierce
19. The Wee Free Men, by Terry Pratchett
20. A Hat Full of Sky, by Terry Pratchett
21. Wintersmith, by Terry Pratchett
22. Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortensen
23. Daughter of the Wind, by Suzanne Fisher Staples
24. The Death of Faith, by Donna Leon
25. Lost on Planet China, by J. Maarten Troost (I actually read it twice, but I'll only count it once, to be fair)
26. The Color of Magic, by Terry Pratchett
27. The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak
28. February Flowers, by Fan Wu
29. Communism: A Love Story, by Jeff Sparrow
30. Deadlocked, by Charlaine Harris
31. Dead Beat, by Jim Butcher
32. White Night, by Jim Butcher
33. The Shack, by William P. Young
34. Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert
35. Girls of Riyadh, by Rajaa Alsanea
36. Slumdog Millionaire, by Vikas Swarup
37. The Midnight Palace, by Carlos y Ruiz Zafon
38. The Nine Lives of Chloe King, by Liz Braswell
39. The Shadow of Night, by Deborah Harkness
40. I Capture the Castle, by Dodie Smith
41. The Serpent's Shadow, by Rick Riordan
42. The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern
43. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
44. The Shadow Plague, by Brandon Mull
45. Dragonquest, by Anne McCaffrey
46. The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin
47. Once Upon A Marigold, by Jean Ferris
48. The Last Guardian, by Eoin Colfer
49. Guide to Teaching English Abroad, by English Teacher X
50. Way to Be, by Gordon B. Hinckley
51. Daughter of Kura, by Debra Austin
52. And Another Thing, by Eoin Colfer
53. Ashes of Honor, by Seanan McGuire
54. Dead Until Dark, by Charlaine Harris
55. Living Dead in Dallas, by Charlaine Harris
56. Club Dead, by Charlaine Harris
57. Dead to the World, by Charlaine Harris
58. Dead as a Doornail, by Charlaine Harris
59. Definitely Dead, by Charlaine Harris
60. All Together Dead, by Charlaine Harris
61. From Dead to Worse, by Charlaine Harris
62. Dead and Gone, by Charlaine Harris
63. Dead in the Family, by Charlaine Harris
64. Dead Reckoning, by Charlaine Harris
65. Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain
66. Last Breath, by Rachel Caine
67. Black Dawn, by Rachel Caine
68. A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs
69. The Mark of Athena, by Rick Riordan
70. The Giver, by Lois Lowry
71. Gathering Blue, by Lois Lowry
72. Messenger, by Lois Lowry
73. Divergent, by Veronica Roth
74. Insurgent, by Veronica Roth
75. Hidden, by PC Cast and Kristin Cast
76. Secrets of the Dragon Sanctuary, by Brandon Mull
77. Keys to the Demon Prison, by Brandon Mull
78. Cold Days, by Jim Butcher
79. Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins
80. Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane, by Suzanne Collins
81. Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods by Suzanne Collins
82. Gregor and the Marks of Secret, by Suzanne Collins
83. Gregor and the Code of Claw, by Suzanne Collins
84. Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren
85. Notorious Nineteen, by Janet Evanovich

Next year's goal: I think I'll go with Five's suggestion and aim for 100 books read in 2013.  I'm going to try to read some of the "classics" but will, no doubt, have to heavily intersperse them with my preferred mix of fantasy and teen books to make it to my lofty goal.  Along those lines, I don't really do resolutions for New Year's - it's like a recipe for failure - but I have recently decided to build better body habits.  I spent a lot of 2011 trying to lose weight and a lot of 2012 teetering between trying to accept myself and being frustrated because I still wanted to be better.  Back around early November or so I realized that I should do both.  I have little doubt that my extra pounds help me stay warm in the mind-numbing cold of the steppe, and I've recently come up with some other reasons to be grateful for being fat, but although I'm in great health right now that can't last unless I take steps to preserve it.  So I started using the school's treadmills every morning to get a 30 minute walk in.  When I had done that for 21 days (the number of days it takes to establish a habit...it took a while since I give myself the weekends off and I missed at least a day each week), I started one-pop days.  I've racked those up much more quickly, although since I went on vacation I've had quite a few scratch days.  I need two more one-pop days, and I've decided that my next habit will be to have only one sweet (candy bar, cookie, cake, whatever) each day.  After that, I'm not sure what the next step will be, but I have about a month to figure out.  So there you have it.  I feel like I've grown up a lot this year, but paying off my student loans has freed me to be a little more spontaneous, and I'm looking forward to seeing where the next twelve months take me.  And this, friends, is how you ring in the new year blogging.  Happy New Year, y'all.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Men in Tights (or: Why I Love the Ballet)

One of the things I was NOT expecting to get my fill of in Mongolia was ballet.  Hell, I lived in Kansas City for 7 years, and saw not one single ballet amongst all the gallery openings, operas, plays, and symphonies I feasted on during my college years.  Chalk that up to the fact that the dancing segment of the conservatory never seemed to do anything, and the KC ballet was..eah, hard to get to, or expensive, or something.  In fact, I may be wrong, but I don't think I've been to a ballet since Mrs. Andrew took us (as impressionable young Bright Ideas students) to see the Nutcracker.
And there's a decent probability it would have remained that way a while longer, had Five not sent around the calendar for the Mongolian State Academic Theater.  Apparently she saw Swan Lake here last year and decided it was pretty decent considering that tickets were less than ten dollars.  And THEN she found out that Sascha Radetsky was coming over from the American Ballet Theater to guest star in Giselle.  He was in Center Stage, and while - as she pointed out - he's not a particularly good actor, he is a Fantastic dancer.  And he is nice to look at.  Especially in tights.  We were devastated to find out that tickets were 120,000 tugrugs for his shows, and while I just ignore anything I write remotely resembling a budget, Five does not, so we were not going to make it.  But then, our Fairy Godmother (otherwise known as the housing manager) decided she couldn't go, and gave her FRONT ROW SEATS TO US!
Well, that was it for me.  I am now officially a Ballet Fan.  I have scoured the schedule and plotted out which shows I want to see.  Last weekend a bunch of us went to see Scheherazade.  It was...interesting.  The dancing was splendid.  The music was excellent.  The storyline?  I have no idea what Rimsky-Korsakov was thinking.  There were two acts.  The first shows Shahryar discovering his wife's unfaithfulness and having her executed.  And then the second opens on a young woman visiting a grave, presumably Scheherazade, but it proceeds into a dance battle between two suitors, and the one she doesn't like kills the one she does, and then kills himself.  That never happened in any of the Arabian Nights stories I ever read.  Still, the costumes and dancing were awesome - the first act was almost like belly dance/ballet fusion, while the second seemed influenced by Persian dancing (or so I thought - my friends connected it to Mongolian dancing.  Who knows?  Maybe the two are cousins).
And tonight - holy twinkling titties, Batman! - we had Spartak.  I had no idea what it was about until I looked it up online, but the photos of it in the lobby of the theater sold me.  It's actually the story of Spartacus, composed by a Russian before Stanley Kubrick got ahold of it.  You can imagine how well the story of a king-become-slave-become-gladiator leading a slave revolt against their oppressive excessive Roman rulers went over with the Soviets of the day.  And do you know what's better than men in tights?  Men in Roman costume.  Yes, I'm shallow.  But the thing that made me want to laugh hysterically was the sparkling fake nipples on the slave dancers' costumes.  I'm not totally shallow, though - the music was exciting and emotionally stirring and, as always, the dancers did a beautiful job.

I can't wait for the rest of the season - we've got Swan Lake, Don Quixote, Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia, and some Mongolian ones to look forward to.  The National Academic Theater is that pink building on the east side of Sukhbaatar Square.  Tickets cost between 5,000-15,000 tugrugs (splash out - we've been sitting in the second row and paying just over $10 for the privilege.  It's totally worth it) except in a few cases (Spartak cost 20,000 T for some reason, and I already mentioned what it cost to get the yummy Mr. Radetsky on stage).  The ticket office opens in the morning from 10-1 and the afternoon from 2-5, although they are closed on BOTH Monday and Tuesday, so don't show up on either of those days (I made that mistake - not fun in -20 C weather).

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Grub Club: Venus Cafe (EPIC WIN!)

Although Grub Club doesn't have a charter, we did found it with the purpose of finding and trying new restaurants.  Several of the last few weeks we have failed to live up to our purpose, as we went to restaurants that most of us have been at.  Well, UB is pretty small for a capital city and several of our members are in their second year, but I like a challenge.  I was planning on taking us to Bonito Brazilian BBQ, but apparently they closed.  So I dug through tripadvisor looking for an alternative, and came up with a winner: Venus Cafe, highly rated home of Malaysian cuisine.
Three people didn't make it that night, and I tried to replace them with "special guests" but only Five ended up coming.  Which was good, because she and I were there alone for an hour, appreciating the smell of the food we WEREN'T eating, our private party room and its really cool silverware.
Note the nice heat lamp that the owner brought into the party room to warm us up.  It felt SOOO nice, especially when Engrish and PE arrived from their two-hour bus ride.  Apparently the new bridge is out (again) and that's been responsible for the bad traffic, although part of their problem was that they got on the wrong bus.  Four buses run up into Zaisan, and they got on the ONE that doesn't take them where they need to go.  Oops.  Also - check out the badass bowling pin coat rack.
Forgive me for forgetting to take food pics when the food looked nice and untouched - I was so overwhelmed by its arrival that I just lost control.  The curry puffs, in front there, were the first thing Five and I ordered - five of those bad boys for 4000 tugrugs and every bite deeeeeee-lishous!  Venus Cafe advertises themselves as having the best roti in UB and I can't complain, but then, everything was great.
The fried rice was my favorite though.  That plate in the back was sambal chicken fried rice and it was AMAZING!  PE had the beef fried rice as a starter, and we all devoured it.  The noodles were good, but could NOT compare with the fried rice, especially not the sambal chicken.  It had this delectable spiciness that...there just aren't words for it.  We tried the murtabak, too (above, left, with the sauce in the bowl) and that was good, too, but once I'd tasted the sambal chicken fried rice there was no going back to it.
This one's specifically for Five - normally we are a child-free group, but since Fire Marshall and Domestic Goddess were so late (basketball on top of the traffic) and we were a smaller group, anyways, we told them to bring their kid while they were at it.  Their kid who said when he leaves Mongolia he will miss their driver (Enkhe), Five, and a new friend at school.  But not me.  Ungrateful snot-nosed brat!

Sunday, December 9, 2012

'Tis the Season: Grub Club Special Edition

Okay.  So you may have noticed I failed to deliver a food post this week.  That's because we went to Hazara restaurant, which, while delicious, is nothing I haven't been to before (over and over and often had delivered in fact)...so I forgot to take pictures.  So in lieu of that, let me report on our staff Christmas party at The Garden, in...Japan Town?...ie, probably the most awesome Christmas party.  Ever.
Because you know when you walk in and see one of these, it's gonna be a good, good night.  Actually, they didn't turn it on but by the end Five and I decided we didn't care and started dipping out of the bottom, and that was good enough! 
The food was served buffet style, and it was really good, but I didn't take any pictures of it.  I probably should have, but I was too busy eating at first, and then I was too busy taking pictures.  Because apparently we can't just have a staff dinner - oh no, we have to have entertainment.  I ended up being part of the entertainment, first by singing "The Christmas Song," and then by taking place in the drawing contest (in which a partner and I had to draw a Christmas tree, blindfolded.
Not bad, eh?  This was part of a 3 round Christmas contest: trivia, drawing, and dance.  Dance, you say?  Why yes.  Every table had to pick a couple to get up and participate in a 6 minute dance off.  Hilarity ensued...
Domestic Goddess, Fire Marshall, and Mad Science are all shakin' their groove thangs, as you can see.  Fearless Leader was dancing his blues away, as well, but you can't see him in this shot.  Never let it be said that I hang out with dull people.
Japan Town, I asked before.  I take it back.  Yes, it WAS in Japan Town, and this proves it.  I took the early bus home, but before I left I had the unenviable task of figuring out how the hell to flush the toilet.  Strangely enough, I never wrote much about toilets before Mongolia, and now I seem to do so about once a month.  Hmm.  Anyways, I'll leave you on that note.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Eskimo Tools, and Other Cold Things

Just how cold is it here in Ulaanbaatar?  It is so cold the Others north of the Wall would be shivering.  It is so cold that Faerie Queen of Winter Mab would be wearing earmuffs.  It is so cold that I am asking myself just how badly I want that coke.

In other words: cold.  And it's only going to get colder.

I've considered occasionally (that occasion being around the end of May or beginning of June) the stages of hot.  I have never before had reason to think about the stages of cold.  Most of my adult life, there has been just one coat for me, and I wore it no matter how cold it was.  When it got too cold for a jacket, I started wearing my leather trenchcoat, and that was that.  But living in the world's coldest capital has given me cause to cast my mind upon it at long last.  Let's see...

First, it got cold enough to snow.  This doesn't mean a lot here - we apparently have had snow up in the hills at least once a month for many, many moons - so let's change that to "it got cold enough to snow regularly."

Then it got too cold for a jacket.  I wore a sweater and a jacket for a while, but around the beginning of November I had to give in and start wearing my coat (the red cashmere one I had made in China - I decided my trenchcoat should be saved for winters one could reason with.  Also, I couldn't button it up, even if it still had its buttons).  Followed by my hat, and shortly thereafter I discovered I needed a cashmere scarf to match my coat (I no longer had a black pashmina since my old one had gotten pretty ratty, and hell, cashmere is cheap here).

After that, it got cold enough that the snow did not go away.  This has led to complications such as slick-as-snot surfaces (say THAT five times fast).  I have come to admire our faithful...groundskeepers?  Guards???  Whatever their exact job title is, the men about the school have the Sisyphean task of removing the snow from walking and driving surfaces.  If the regular snowfall is not removed, it gets packed underfoot and becomes a thick, hard layer that is slippery, dirty, and spit-encrusted, because that isn't going anywhere til spring, either. 

Your better businesses will keep their sidewalks clear, and that's a godsend, because when your feet slide right out from underneath you and you hit so hard it brings tears to your eyes, guess what?  You'll find out about the next level of cold.  Any moisture coming out of your eyes will freeze to your eyelashes.  If you have a sniffly nose (such as the one I've been using for the last five weeks), the hairs in your nose will freeze together.  Frost will form on the outside of the scarf that is covering your mouth and funneling your breath up to your eyebrows and eyelashes, which will frost over, too.

And very shortly thereafter, the skies will turn white.  Not "snow-is-coming" white, but "forecast-calls-for-smoke" white.  Because everyone and his brother are burning coal to heat their gers.  Actually, that's not entirely fair.  There are plenty of people living in apartments, which are heated with radiators, and plenty more living in the sewers, heated by the pipes that bring the hot water to our radiators.  But the pollution is gradually getting worse, and I know a day is coming where it won't make me any warmer to stand in a sunny window because the smoke will be blocking out the power of the sun.

And people wonder why I've been sick as long as I have.  The good news is, at this point, I doubt it can get any worse.  The better news is that by the time I come back in January to find out, two-and-a-half weeks of fresh, Iowa air should get me over my cold.  The best news of all?  When I go to Harbin in February, I might actually find the weather manageable, rather than being unable to cope with it and, thus, missing the snow and ice sculptures that are the whole point of going to Harbin.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mongolian Moments

I don't have anything better to write about this week (that I'm not saving for later, anyways), so I thought I'd share some Mongolian moments with you.  We've got two weeks (ten school days) left til Christmas, and even though the year has flown by thus far, it seems like a long time til then. 
For starters, a bunch of us went out for Chinese last Friday night.  It is kind of comforting to know that Chinglish is Chinglish, even in Mongolia.  I had to take lots of pictures of the menu because there were SO many mistakes, and I've kind of gotten used to having a menu that is mostly translated correctly. 
After the first couple of dishes came out, we lost power.  Strangely enough, it was just the block of shops we were in - across the street and in the apartments behind us, the lights were still on.  Even stranger, they kept serving us our food.  Maybe this happens often enough that they are prepared to carry on, with or without lights.
And then there's the bus after school.  Mostly, if we want to go in on a weeknight, we just take the 4:30 school bus, but a couple of times now, time has been of the essence, and I've taken one of the public buses instead.  The time before I didn't have my camera, and this time wasn't nearly as crowded, but there's a university up on the hill with us, which lets out at about the same time we do, so you start feeling like a sardine after the second or third stop.
And finally, there's the first of the month.  Some of my fellow volunteers were wanting a bottle of wine last night, and were about to go looking for it after coming back from the orphanage, but then we remembered it was the first of the month.  In an attempt to ease the use of alcohol, nobody (shops, restaurants, or bars) can sell booze on the first of each month.  I've heard they want to extend this to other days, possibly by district, but for now, it's only on the first of the month that the booze section is roped off. 

What else can I tell you?  It's cold and I fell down for the first time in a long, long time yesterday, due to the fact that the bank I went into didn't mop down their stairs with any regularity.  I have some nasty bruises and a shoulder that hurts from catching myself, but it could have been worse.  Anyways, stay warm...you'll probably be warmer than me regardless of what you do!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Grub Club: Bojangles Grill

It's a good week.  I got a foot massage from the place around the corner, and the masseuse was pretty light handed - just like I like it.  The kids have been good, just two weeks til vacation, and somehow I'm almost through our first normal week in a long, long time.  I just got confirmation that Enkhe will be able to drive us to Gaachurt this weekend (also known as, no standing outside the Sansar on the outskirts of UB waiting a half hour in -20 C temps for a bus on Saturday!)  But best of all, most exciting of all, we recently got our Tsagaan Sar (Mongolian New Year) dates confirmed.  We'll have a 4-day weekend halfway into February, and I'm going to Harbin to FINALLY see the Ice and Snow Festival...and Lit mgiht even come with me...and Air Market in town got me a ticket for $300 less than what I found on Kayak.com!  Their price for Chengdu over International Women's Day was the same as Kayak, though, so tonight I went online to book that, and IT had gone down $170!  If getting my phone back last Wednesday was karma for volunteering, I suspect that these were blessings for finally sending my tithing in. 
Last night Fire Marshall did his first turn as Alpha Dog (officially - he's always been Alpha Dog in some of our hearts), and he chose Bojangles Grill.  I already typed this once but blogger just vomited this paragraph all over the place - presumably that's my fault for trying to use an emoticon inside a parenthesis.  Anywho, it's a little out of the way, at least when you're coming from Sukhbaatar Square and it's -20 C outside.  I made strategic shop stops along the way, so I survived, but the heat lamp at Bojangles still felt damn good.  My grubbies were late due to the worst traffic I've seen in a long time.  Fearless Leader didn't actually make it, although, as you can see, he was there in spirit.

(See what I mean about Blogger vomiting?? data-blogger-escaped-was="was" data-blogger-escaped-way="way" data-blogger-escaped-we="we" data-blogger-escaped-weather="weather" data-blogger-escaped-were="were" data-blogger-escaped-when="when" data-blogger-escaped-which="which" data-blogger-escaped-while="while" data-blogger-escaped-worst="worst" data-blogger-escaped-you="you">)
What kind of restaurant Bojangles is trying to be is not entirely clear.  I suspect from the bangers&mash, fish&chips, and various curried things that they're aiming for vaguely British, but they also had more American fare as well as Mongolian and Korean.  Maybe they had an identity crisis?  Whatever the case was, this hidden gem had pretty good food and nice atmosphere, not to mention our waiter (who I'm pretty sure was the owner) was Singaporean and spoke English fluently.
I had the Cajun chicken pasta...and plenty of coke.  Halfway through dinner I needed the loo, and when in doubt, saw the following delightful sign:
I think I used to have this exact image as a sticker in Korea (along with other similarly awesome ones - wishing I'd bought more of them).  If you want to see it in person, follow the street that runs under the Peace Bridge going west.  It's a block past the Nissan dealership on the north side of the street.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

GrrrrrAttitude

It's weird, sometimes, being an expat.  Time doesn't move in the normal way.  Not only does it move faster, but some days lose their significance as they come and go - American days.  I miss my Halloweens, my Fourths of July, and my Thanksgivings.

However, here in Mongolia, of all places, I'm actually working for a school in which there is a living North American culture (as opposed to Ras Al Khaimah, where is was definitely a British culture environment).  A bunch of the Canadians have established their own kind of Good Old Boy's hockey club, while others play poker over the weekends (when the reincarnation of the DDEB isn't taking up the community center, watching X-Files with no lights on...)  We actually celebrate two Thanksgivings here - Canadian, and the one that actually counts (hello!  How do they even know when to put up Christmas lights there?  Or when the biggest shopping day of the year will be???)  It's really hard to go to work the next day after a big feast like that (something we learned after Canadian Thanksgiving), so we had our feast on Saturday night, which gave us a whole day to digest afterwards.  And it WAS a feast, as you can tell - I took this picture before the tables were absolutely groaning with the weight of the food.

I told you before that life in Mongolia is a little lonely, and if you haven't caught on, that's changed a lot in the last two months.  Check out my awesome peeps!  You've read about some of these guys in my grub club posts, as well as these guys...
And, of course, others, but I'm not sure if the wine to my acid would agree with me about how well that photo turned out, so I'll leave it at that for now.  Let's just say it would be fair to say that I am grateful for friends this Thanksgiving.  I've spent a year at a school where I had pretty much NO social network, and it was hell.  It was, in fact, the thing that actually drove me to leave that country.  And while I'm getting to like Mongolia pretty well, without friends I would be singing a completely different tune.

Other things I'm grateful for?  Other than the standard job, family, home, etc (all of which I am, of course, grateful for)?  Being fat.  You know, it actually DOES make a difference when it's cold out, although I wish I could lose enough of it to fit comfortably in the coat my mom bought me.  I'm grateful to be sick (read the beginning of my last blog if you want to know why).  I'm grateful to be single, grateful I didn't end up with any of the stellar individuals I fancied at one point or another, and grateful to have learned a thing or two from them.  And I'm grateful to be Mormon, even if it's sometimes a pain in the butt.  More on that another day.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Grub Club: Thai Express

Before I can even begin to write about our dining experience, I have to tell you about a wonderful Mongolia moment.  I realized, upon sitting down to write this, that I didn't have my phone.  Normally I'm super-ultra-paranoid about it, but I guess I was distracted and didn't put it back in my purse when I finished sending a text with it from within the taxi, a text I was sending to the taxi company to let them know that their cars had not left without us, after all (sometimes it takes a LONG time to get people to leave a restaurant).  This is a new thing for me, but I didn't feel like taking my three-week old cough out onto the street and waiting to flag one down, so I texted a company that I'd heard about, Help Taxi.  Maybe I've had my cough for so long for this exact reason; if we'd been in a car we flagged off the street, there would have been no way to track my phone - and my ID, insurance, and bank cards - down.  I would have had to hope they returned it to the school.  Instead - after a frantic post on our teacher Facebook page and a little help from Engrish - I was able to call the company and they informed me the driver was bringing it back out here to me.  Humd'Allah!  Besides being honest enough to return my phone, they have great service and it seems like their drivers speak a pretty good amount of English - you just text them where you want picked up and where you want to go and they send someone out.  The number is 9965-2371 - call them, they're great!
Now, to the matter at hand.  It is our second Wednesday off in a row here in Mongolia, and I gotta say, I could TOTALLY get used to it!  However, this is an election day, and sobriety is apparently a virtue when you're electing leaders (although I'm sure there are more than a few of my countrymen that felt the need for a drink when our election was over...not the ones who voted for Romney because they were Mormon, of course, but the others, perhaps), so alcohol was bah-kway today.   And that is definitely tea in that teapot.  A special brand of tea called Chinggis.
Thai Express was our chosen venue for the night.  I've been there before and wasn't that impressed - what kind of Thai restaurant doesn't have red curries?!? - but was willing to give it another try.  I avoided the pad thai because I had it before and found it kind of bland, but some of my grubbies enjoyed it.  Instead, I had the "Jade Green Curry with Chicken" which was spicy, and not bad, but it had potatoes in it, potatoes that were not in the description on the menu.  And if you've known me for any length of time at all you probably already know that I HATE potatoes - outside of Peru, I only eat them if they have completely ceased to resemble potatoes.  Mad Science hates waste, so she ate mine for me while she was waiting for her balls.
You can see her first balls (some sort of meat ball fried up in a wrapper), there on the right, and the second course below.  She was kind of disappointed in the second ones - she was hoping they'd have a different flavor, but they were pretty much the same thing, in some broth with some noodles.
Thai Express is in Naran Plaza, a shopping center that has just about the worst location I can imagine.  It's near the center of town, but it's next to the Peace Bridge, and it's hard to get stopped anywhere close to it.  I suggest you do yourself a favor and just go to Bangkok - it's closer to the bus stop and has panaeng curry (mmmmmmmmm....).

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Caveat Emptor

This past June, I decided the time had come for me to consolidate all the junk in my purse.  I have been known to carry my 2nd generation iPod, my old Nikon Coolpix camera, and the Chuck Norris of cell phones all at the same time.  All three were pretty necessary.  I used Giancarlo (my iPod) for just about everything - music, ebooks, taking notes, checking the weather, the internet.  I've even been known to use Skype on it.  But it wasn't a phone, and I never cared enough to buy the Chinese solution to this (a gadget you clip around it that takes a sim card and turns it into a phone).  And my cheap Nokia didn't have a camera on it, which might not seem that important but when you miss taking a photo of a man dangling a turtle he'd caught in the canal from a pole for the SECOND time, simply because you didn't care enough to throw your camera in your purse, it becomes much more important.  After my Dark Lord and Master showed me the Galaxy Note last Christmas, I decided that it was the phone for me.  It was not some "trendy" phone like the iPhone, yet it could do everything the iPhone could.  And more.  It has a better camera, it has a bigger screen for reading on, and it comes with a pen for the touch screen.  I bought it after getting my June salary and fell instantly, irrevocably, in love.

And then I tried installing Barnes and Noble's Nook for Android.  Turns out I made a mistake when I purchased the UK model from the dealer in Shanghai; due to copyright issues you can only install Nook on American devices.  I've been looking for a solution to that for five months and I still haven't managed to find one.  I came really close by going through Digital Editions, but it won't recognize Samsung devices as being compatible.  So for now I am using a different e-reader, which will open other ePub books.  It's not my favorite solution, because it doesn't allow me to easily get all my books by legal means, but it's all I've got.

For the most part, I was okay with that.  I'd accepted the limitations with the understanding that I would NEVER EVER buy non-American technology again.  I don't like Kies as much as iTunes, but I can deal with it, and the other apps which have been incompatible with my Note have not been nearly as annoying.  But in September I started noticing my battery was running out too fast.  I tried ignoring it, and it seemed to go away, but then the problem returned.  And got worse.  Let me explain: over the summer I was using it full-time as my camera, taking photos seemingly non-stop, and after two days, I would still have power left in my batteries.  One week ago, the battery was draining on a daily basis - even when I never used it.

So I finally contacted Samsung.  They told me the solution - it needed the firmware upgraded.  Great, I could handle that.  So I went into Kies, and it told me that before I could update the firmware I needed to update Kies, which I dutifully did.  And when I tried to reconnect my phone, it no longer had the device drivers to do so.  I contacted Samsung again, and they told me to take it into a service center with the receipt.  I told them that while I had a UK model phone, I lived in Mongolia, and was told that I needed to take it to the country where it was purchased.  Which was one of the dumber things I'd heard in a long time.  I told them I wouldn't be back in China til April and asked if they had any other bright ideas.  Maybe that was trying their patience a little too far, because I never got a response to that message.  Which was kind of annoying.  When you spend $600 on a phone, you expect to get good customer service.  I have to say that their lack of customer service has to be my least favorite thing about my phone (maybe it's because I'm stuck looking to the guys in the UK for it - surely Koreans or Americans would be more helpful???)

Fortunately, I'm not an idiot.  I had a stroke of inspiration, and downloaded the device driver I needed, which Kies no longer had.  Liam Crayden saved the day - he was kind enough to put it on his blog - and once my computer had it I was able to connect my phone and update it.  It was appallingly simple, and made me even madder that someone in Samsung's customer service department couldn't have saved me days of worry that I would have to use my old Nokia until April and after getting it fixed try to sell it off and buy an iPhone with the profit.  I'm glad it didn't come to that, because - as you can see - my phone can kick your phone's ass up one side and down the other.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Grub Club: The French Bistro

Tonight was meant to be a historic occasion, a moment which brought us one step closer to global domin...er, I mean peace, global peace.  And that would be the Grub Club, bridging the gap between America and North Korea, via Urlag, Ulaanbaatar's own North Korean restaurant.  But they're remodeling, so we went to The French Bistro.  Yes, that is actually its name.  When you get to put "The" in your name, you're pretty special, I guess.
Domestic Goddess (I went back and retroactively changed her name - she brings me baked goods every Monday and it's a much more fitting code name, I think) was very excited to try the escargot.  She was hoping they'd be served in their shells so she could say, "Slippery little suckers!" but alas, they were shell-free.  And delicious, or so I was told - I've had snails, and they are good, but I'd seen the dessert menu so I was holding back.
Some people are civilized and eat salads with their dinners.  And they were spectacular looking salads, I have to say, even if my girls back home have never converted me to their fruit and cheese cult.  But as for me, I went for the chicken fricassee.  Possibly because it sounds cool to say and I don't think I've ever had it before. 
It was served with creme and spinach and had a nice garlicky flavor.  I was a little worried about the creme, in case my lactose intolerance decided it would be fun to ruin my night, but two hours later, all is well.  And let's be honest - when have I ever let a little lactose stand in my way (two words for you: Cheesecake Factory.  Amirite, Evil One?)
I mentioned the dessert menu.  It was a tough choice.  I was tempted by the bananas en flambe (that blue area on the top of the banana is not a trick of the light - it's fire.  Too bad I wasn't faster with my camera.  Domestic Goddess ordered that and let me have a taste of it, in exchange for a taste of mine.  I do love me some cooked banana desserts, but I'm glad this wasn't my actual dessert, because the alcohol didn't all cook out of it.  Instead I got....
CHOCOLATE FONDANT CAKE!  MMmmmmmmmm.  As pretty as it is, these guys have NOTHING on Bene Bene on my old stomping ground, Hongmei Lu.  Not only is Bene Bene more deliciously melty, it's about $5 cheaper.  However, this cake is here, and it was delicious, although definitely pricey - at 14,000 tugrugs, this is quite possibly the most expensive dessert I've ever eaten.  It was a long meal at a nice restaurant, but I'm not sure how often I'll come back.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Play's the Thing

A bunch of my friends are posting things they're grateful for all this month on Facebook.  I'm not that ambitious, but I WILL say, right now, that I am grateful for Five's incredible powers of observation.  Right in the heart of UB is a big red building, housing the National Academic Drama Theater of Mongolia.  I've walked past it at least a few times every week, but never given it much thought.  Well, over Greek food last week, Five asked what H looks like in Cyrillic, because she noticed the banners on the outside of the theater, and was pretty sure Hamlet was coming to town.  Well, as a matter of fact, it looks like this -> X, and even though the posters actually said "Gamlet," sure enough, that was the play the National Theater was opening the season with.  Don't ask me what ELSE they're playing this year, because the website is kind of a mess, but their production was awesome, even if it was in Mongolian.
However, since the website IS a mess it was a chore finding out anything about it.  I inspected the banners earlier this week, and wrote down a couple of phone numbers listed.  When I called one, I got the response of, "My English is no," so I asked our office Wonder Woman to give them a call and find out the particulars, then went into town to get us tickets (15,000 - 50,000 tugrugs).  This was a challenge as well, since the ticket office is not clearly marked.  I tried the front doors (all locked), then went in the side door, where I was told to go to the little red building to the side that I assumed was a guard house.  After going into that via the wrong door, and then running out to an ATM when I found out they couldn't accept my card, I FINALLY bought tickets.  I told the lady working there that I needed 6 tickets for Saturday.  She might have been English-is-No lady, because she sold me 6 tickets for Sunday, but we didn't figure that out until they were seating us, and as a result, we ended up in the theater box on stage left.  We were so close we could see the actors spray their glottal stops, but it made it really hard to see what was happening further back, since we had a piece of the set in our way.
I'm not sure what period the director had in mind, based on their sets and costumes.  The actresses were wearing glitzy formals that would not have gone amiss at a senior prom, and the men - mostly - had military style jackets.  A few notable exceptions were Claudius (who tromped around in a long black leather duster with red velour-looking pants and dark sunglasses), Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who were dandied up with long, dangly rhinestone earrings and blingy rhinestone Michael Jackson gloves), and Gertrude (whose dress looked more like a robe, and showed off her thigh-high stockings and long, shapely MILF legs).  As I mentioned before, the whole thing was performed in Mongolian, which made me grateful for my high school AP English teacher, the Magnificent Mrs. Driml...otherwise I might not have had a clue as to what was going on!  Hamlet himself is above, and the actor, L. Jamsranjav, did an excellent job portraying his "madness," although in the other two staged productions I saw, he did a lot less crotch-grabbing, boob-fondling, and dry humping - the scene with his mother was particularly more explicit.
I LOVED how they handled the play-within-a-play scene.  Mongolia has a tradition of contortionism (remember?  I mentioned it in Song and Dance and Dog and Pony), and they integrated this into the play.  While the king and queen frolic in the front of the stage, other figures are doing likewise in silhouettes projected onto a silk screen.  Really interpretive and beautiful, if not exactly traditional.  Ophelia was portrayed by A. Ganchimeg, and while she was pathetic enough while being rebuffed by Hamlet, she really shone after Polonius' murder drives her mad.  She was a damn fine actress.
The play ran without an intermission, which was too bad because I started nodding off during Yorick's big scene, although I pulled it together for the big finale...which is good because I would have felt cheated if I'd missed seeing Laertes pull his wig off to reveal his mohawk (which Lit said reminded her of a Naadam wrestler's hairstyle) before his duel with Hamlet.  After retrieving our coats we saw people on the stage in the theater, and decided to go take a look, where we got invited onto the stage and asked by a camera crew what we thought about Gamlet (I'm just waiting for my students to tell me they saw me on tv saying, "VERY GOOD!")  It was a lot of fun - good friends, good actors, good production (even if we didn't get to hear the Bard's beautiful verse).

Friday, November 9, 2012

Grub Club: Veranda

I have to apologize for the hiatus - last week was orphanage week and I've been experiencing technical difficulties with my phone (don't get me started on Samsung - argh!) Grub Club is back, with the addition of two new members - Domestic Goddess and Fire Marshall (you know who you are).  Ironically, this week we went to a restaurant I'd already been to, and it was Domestic Goddess and Fire Marshall who took me there (before our first quiz night).  It's an Italian place right in the middle of town that overlooks Choijin Lama Temple (see Buddhism Debunked) and it's awesome.
First of all, they have, by far, the best-looking pizza I've seen in Mongolia.  Lots of my grubbies ordered salads, and they were all delicious.  The service is super-fast, and while they haven't quite got the knack of bringing all the food at the same time (or in the right order, necessarily) considering our wait at Luna Blanca this was really nice.
I don't drink wine, but my friends do, and they have a nice long wine list - although as Domestic Goddess found out when trying to order a...cabernet sauvignon?  She'll correct me if I'm wrong, I'm sure...they don't necessarily have everything on the menu.  "Bah-kway" (or however you spell it) is the dreaded word here - like "Mei-you" in Mandarin or "Eop-se-yo" in Korean, it means, "PSYCH!  We don't have that right now, try again schmuck!"  Unfortunately, that's not as uncommon as I wish it were.
I had the lasagne, yet again.  I'm a sucker for a good lasagne, and this one is made with real beef (as opposed to fake beef - aka, mutton - although you can also get it made with chicken), and it has great flavor.  As you can see from the ashtray that snuck into my photo, they allow smoking, and while they have a non-smoking area, it's not as nice.  Supposedly smoking is supposed to be banned in public in the near future, which would be WONDERFUL - people have started smoking on the buses, I'm guessing because it's getting colder.

At dinner we found out that there were two upcoming holidays that weren't on the school calendar.  We were considering the effectiveness of bribing our Queen with cookies, and even before we could get to school the next day we had gotten an email saying that we'd have the next two Wednesdays off.  Which kind of screws with my sixth and seventh graders, but boy, is it going to make the time fly!  I'm looking forward to getting home for Christmas and seeing my adorable niece and nephew - and maybe the arrival of a new one. 

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The OTHER Grub Club

This week's regularly scheduled grub club was canceled due to a scheduling conflict with Halloween.  While this was kind of a bummer (not entirely, but we're not going to talk about why I wasn't entirely bummed here because I've recently become aware that people actually DO read my blogs), it does give me the chance to write about the other grub club (once upon a time, Fearless Leader referred to it as an "in-house" grub club, but that was short-lived....just think about it).
Six or seven weeks ago, I invited Mad Science, PE, and Lit over for Mexican food, and they enjoyed it so much that we decided to cook for each other once a week.  Since then, we've had a delicious lasagne, possibly the best chicken and dumplings that anyone besides my mom ever made, and some sort of fantastic Burmese (maybe???) dish.  I may have struggled with making friends when I first got here, but I tell you, I got the best ones (and this statement is not just limited to the aforementioned cooks).  So last night it was my turn again, and while I was valiantly striving NOT to do work during the last of my vacation I realized that I could manage a Greek feast with what I can get here, and so that's what I did.  Above, you can see my Greek salad and moussaka (the bechamel FINALLY turned out right!) and below is the tzatziki and a loaf of bread I picked up at the Minii Delguur outside of Merkuri (which was a find - it was so fresh the bag was steamy and it was still warm...mmmmmmm).  I was blessed to work for an incredible chef (disguised as an academic supervisor) in Korea, and when Bronte ran off to Greece to get married I became doubly blessed - I can now cook both some really good Korean dishes as well as some really good Greek ones.
I knew it would happen eventually, and it has - this week I've found myself missing Shanghai - but this is probably largely a result of the fact that I bought myself a ticket to go there over spring break.  I decided at some point that this will be the year I go to all those places in China that I kind of wanted to and never actually did - provided Uncle Hu approves my visa.  I will probably cry now if he doesn't.  I've decided to make a run to Xian from Shanghai while I'm there, hit Chengdu over our 3-day weekend in March, and if I can swing it, the Harbin Ice Festival during Tsaagan Saar.  But the thing I've realized is, I miss Chinese food (the places Meen used to take me, anyway), I miss my little Chinese seamstress, my fish, my hood, my taxis, my friends (and one enemy, at any rate), my students - it will be nice to go back.  Just don't hold your breath waiting for a reaction like I get when I'm back in Korea (ie, that I want to stay forever and EVER).

Sunday, October 28, 2012

All Good Things...

Wednesday saw the end of our journey, and this is the end of my blog posts for this trip.  I'm not exactly thrilled to go back to school tomorrow, but just as I was ready to go back to my bed and everything else UB has to offer, I am ready to work again, since it will give me relief from all this free time.  In the last couple of days I watched all of Modern Family season 3 and the first five episodes of season 4, went to the grocery store everyday (it gave me something to do), and I need more to my life.  Of course, I could have gone in and got some things done.  I could have worked on my illustrations (especially now that I've finished Tom Sawyer).  Instead I was kind of lazy, and that was nice, but I bought a ticket to Shanghai for March 30, and I have a lot of work to do before then if I want to look the way I'd like to by then.  Anyways, the trip...
Mongol Els is a sand dune where a sand dune has no right to exist.  As I mentioned before, it's like a little bit of the Gobi wandered off from its parents and got lost, and is still waiting for someone to come and get it.  It makes me excited to go see the real Gobi (probably sometime next year - if our principal hasn't turned me in as an enemy of the state, I'm hoping to spend my next few vacations seeing places in China that I should have seen while I was living there...oh well).
You can't tell from my pictures, but it was chilly - not bone-jarringly cold, but cold enough.  A cold desert, of all things.  I rolled down the hill in the first picture, taking off my sweater, outside shirt, scarf, and hat first - it was cold, but I wanted to avoid getting as much sand into the car as possible.  Then, of course, I put it all back on to dig sand out from around said car, so I guess I could have saved time and just kept it all one.  Oh well, details.  That sand was pretty chilly, too, and moist enough to make a sandcastle, which hopefully means if I was ever stranded out there I'd be able to use survival tactics to get the water out, and not have to resort to drinking my own pee (I spent a lot of time watching Bear Grylls this spring...)
As I mentioned, Enkhe had herding friends nearby and we went to visit them on our way out.  This was all that was left of their camp, but they were happy to tie up their dog and have us in for my first non-taste of airag (fermented mare's milk, which is on the no-fly list for good little Mormon girls, so I merely pretended to take a sip...this morning the ladies from church told me I could dip my finger in it to wet my forehead with it, which would have the same effect).  They invited us to have lunch with their family, in the town of Gurvanbulag.
The wife and children of one of the men live here so the boys can go to school.  Lunch was not quite ready so we went to visit the school, which was really nice.  Unlike many small towns, Gurvanbulag has a brick school, which Enkhe said is because Mongolia's first astronaut, Gurragchaa Sansar, came from here.  Five was particularly impressed by the smart boards, which WE don't have.  I just thought the kids were ridiculously adorable.  Soon enough, we were back at the house enjoying lunch, and Enkhe got to catch up with his friends, and before we knew it, we were coming back into Ulaanbaatar, where we got stuck in the inevitable traffic.  And tomorrow school will start again, but no fear - in another 7 weeks we'll be out for the Christmas holiday.  And if it was colder on my way home from church than it was on my way there, I can rest sure in the knowledge that I have a couple of half-liter hot water bottles winging their way here from Wales to see me through the long winter.