Thursday, August 30, 2012

Song & Dance and Dog & Pony

Well, four days of school down (only 178 to go) and two weeks into Mongolia, I'm still alive. I have not starved to death (in fact, I'm going to cook something REAL shortly after I write this, which will make the third time this week), and in fact, I was not even remotely tempted to eat the whole pizza I ordered last night (because it was nowhere near as good as New York Style Pizza's Brooklyn....mmmm.....) I know Mongolia will be a good place for me, especially if I make myself keep the right perspective. For example, it might take me an hour and a half to get downtown on the bus sometimes, but if I remind myself that it used to take me nearly that long on the subway to get to my belly dance lessons in Shanghers, or to make it to places in Seoul, it doesn't seem so bad. It's all about perspective, really.
A week ago the school took us newbies (and any Oldies who wanted to go) to the Tumen Ekh song and dance show. The vocal music didn't do all that much for me - I bought some on iTunes back when I got the job and overall it kinda gives me a headache - but the instrumental pieces were great. I especially loved the part where they made the horse-headed fiddle whinny like a horse.
They had dancers, too, but I thought the coolest part was the contortionist. Unbe-freakin-lievable. The theater was meant to resemble a ger-palace like our buddy Chinggis would have had. Not the most comfortable seating arrangement, but nice digs nonetheless.
The next day, after school, we abandoned Ulaanbaatar for the countryside (again, courtesy of the school). It took us three and a half hours, and we didn't go that far from UB, but Hustain National Park was worth it. Mongolia really does have spectacularly gorgeous countryside.
I got to sleep in my first ger that night, and it wasn't bad. Or it wouldn't have been if the fire hadn't gone out. In fact, it was nearly midnight when one of my ger-mates actually got someone to put a stovepipe on our stove and start our fire. Which was coal and didn't smell as nice as the wood fires that were burning in other gers, but it was so nice and warm, I didn't care. But let me tell you - when that fire went out, all three of us knew it. It got COLD. And it was bloody August.
The main reason people come to Hustain is to see the takhi, Mongolia's wild horses. This is the closest picture I got, out the window of the bus, but we actually found a herd of them and got out to take a look. We were supposed to leave the camp at 8 for this little excursion, but we got stuck waiting for people with families, and then our bus driver told us to get on the OTHER school bus. Well, good thing he did - turns out he was drunk as a skunk, and at 2 p.m. when we were meant to be heading back to UB he was incapable, so my bus had to hang around a couple more hours til the bus company could send out a sober driver. I had heard that alcoholism is a problem here - apparently the first day of the month you can't buy alcohol anywhere here (store, bar, or restaurant), but this was the first time I'd seen it with my own eyes. I felt kind of bad for the guy - I guess it would suck to have to stay sober while driving a bunch of drunken foreigners around, but then, I go around with drunken foreigners all the time and enjoy myself just fine. And I wouldn't risk my job for it. Anyways, that's all for now, people. Hope you are eating well wherever you are; have a burrito and think of me.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

LIES! ALL LIES!!!!

This afternoon I was going to write about the song and dance show we went to on Thursday. Or maybe possibly the beauty - and deep night chill - of Hustain National Park. Or maybe both. Instead, you get to hear me bitch a little about my second attempt to get to church. Last week, my first attempt, I walked down to the bus stop (a ten minute walk) in the pouring rain. I didn't have an umbrella, so I got soaked, but I just had a FEELING that something monumental was going to happen, and I have been trying to be a better Mormon girl, so I was happy to get wet. That is, until I'd been standing at the bus stop waiting for 25 minutes, in the freezing cold. It is August, and I know this is Mongolia, but COME ON!!! So I decided it would be bad to go to church freezing cold and miserable, so I had lunch instead (ostensibly to dry off) and then slogged back to the apartment.
This morning was warm and sunny, so I didn't foresee that being a problem. I walked to the bus stop, where I saw a couple of cows wandering around. These are the same cows that were in the parking lot last week, and wandering cows seemed like such a bizarre thing to see (outside of India, at any rate). I took a couple of pictures of them, and was still waiting for the bus, so I gave the number listed on the meetinghouse locator a call. Presumably the bishop answered, and in answer to my question said that yes, it was right there where the website said it was. He mentioned something about the Chinggis Hotel, which I had NOT seen when I went on my reconnaissance mission last Saturday, but I hadn't looked that closely. Also, I had no way, at that point of figuring out what the hell he was talking about, so I went ahead and got on the bus. Which did not go exactly as planned.
See, after the bus went a slightly different route than I was expecting (which took me past one of the Korean restaurants my kyobo predecessor mentioned as being one of her favorites - see, I'm still seeing rainbows, baby!) this father and son got on the bus, and the kid was really cute, and I was trying to take his picture and sort of forgot to pay attention to where I was going (or, as my father would say, "My head was up my ass.") And so I didn't get off the bus where I meant to. A less adventurous individual would have gotten off at the next stop and gone back, but since Adventure is my middle name (or would be, if I added a few letters and changed my second "n" to an "r") I decided to ride it to the end and see where I ended up.
Which, as it turned out, was the 4th khoroo - a ger district in the far northwest of the city. I know this because I was tracking my movement on the map on my phone. I was not exactly thrilled when the bus driver made me get off and left me there with no idea where the next bus would pick me up, but a nice Mongolian man with a tall beer who spoke not a lick of English was trying to help me figure that out when another 12 bus (the one I'd come out on) pulled up, and - thanking him profusely - I got on the bus, which took me back to the place I'd meant to get off at in the first place, and I was only an hour an a fifteen minutes late. So I looked around for the building. And it was. Not. There. &#*@&^$&*#&$^*#YUY^*&^&*!!!!!!! The church's meetinghouse locator lied to me. I'm feeling very hurt and betrayed - now, instead of an easy walk and one bus ride to get to church I have no bloody idea how to get to effing Sansar. WHY THE HELL IS IT I NEVER ONCE IN MY LIFE AS AN EXPAT GET TO HAVE AN EASY TIME GETTING TO CHURCH!?! *#*$(%(*&#$!!! On the other end of the equation, I went back to Fire King (the Korean restaurant) and had a pretty good kimchi jjiggae for lunch, so it wasn't a total waste. Rainbows, people, rainbows.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

We Ain't In Kansas Anymore

It's been a week and a half since I got to Ulaanbaatar. I thought, before I got here, that I was mentally prepared for Mongolia (or as I like to call it, the Wild East - yes, I know it doesn't have quite the same ring to it as "wild west," get over it). Who knows, maybe I was. Mentally. On a visceral level, though, I don't think I knew what I was getting myself into.
Let me start by saying this is one breathtakingly beautiful country. Even with the construction blocking out some of the scenery, I have to give myself a little shake now and again when I realize where I am. Mongolia's a country of wide open spaces, and the way the sun lights up those rolling hills is magic.
It's also - as I mentioned in passing - a country under construction. And the people doing that construction live in gers (aka: yurts - and remember that cause it's the last time I'm telling you!) And Ulaanbaatar, specifically, is a boomtown, which is funny, because it already has ridiculous traffic problems. I mean, completely fricking ridiculous. A drive that takes ten minutes in light traffic can - I've been told - take 3 hours at the wrong time of day. You could walk it faster than that, although of course, no one's going to want to once it's subzero out. Which it was earlier this week - we had a low of -1C and apparently there was snow, although I didn't see it. For those of you who are tuning in late, let me remind you I'm writing this in LATE AUGUST. But really, the most difficult, the most horrendous, the thing I had not and could not prepare myself for was the lack of Western chain restaurants. I thought every country in the world had McDonald's. Freaking INDIA has McDonald's. But not Mongolia. There are no Starbucks in Ulaanbaatar. We've got nothing. I'm not even sure how this is possible - there are three international schools here as of this fall - if UB can support 3 international schools, surely they merit a Pizza Hut! But whether it be because the government doesn't want them, or because the chains can't be bothered, they aren't here. This is probably a good thing for me - after all, I spent the last six months adding insulation to my body in preparation for the very harsh winter to come (that's my story and I'm sticking to it!) but food is one of the things I have already found myself missing about Shanghers (along with my friends and plentiful taxis). On the other hand, the best thing about Mongolia is, it ain't China! Stay tuned folks - I'll be back shortly with contortionists, wild horses, gers, and my first run-in with good old Soviet-era alcoholism.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Machu-ismo

In about six hours I'll be taking my last ride out to the airport. Goodbye, gorgeous Latin men! Goodbye amazing Peruvian cuisine! And most of all, goodbye to the Evil One, my former partner-in-crime, moving forward into a life of wedded bliss (or will be as soon as the Boy can get his butt down here...consequentially, I am currently accepting applications for a new partner-in-crime. Minimum requirements: travel experience, sarcastic sense of humor, common sense, intelligence, and a love of reading. Candidates with temple recommends, y-chromosomes, and Latino heritage will be given preference. Please send a cover letter with CV and photo attached to thegrandwagoneer@hotmail.com).
Machu Picchu is just about all I have left to write about from this trip (just about. I might still have one post left in me. We'll see). It is the most difficult destination to get to I've ever visited - first, you have to get to Cuzco. Then you have to get to Aguas Calientes (unless you are doing the Inka Trail or the backdoor route by biking into Santa Teresa - both are expensive and you have to book the Inka Trail about 6 months in advance, as only a certain number of people are allowed on it each day), and to get to Aguas Calientes you will need to take a train. I went via Ollantaytambo (as mentioned yesterday), and my train ticket still cost 53 dollars each way. Once there, you either have to hike up to the ruins (hahahahah - in my shape and at this altitude, which admittedly is not as high as it was at Titicaca - NOT BLOODY LIKELY - see the below photograph for a demonstration of how steep the place is).
The bus up to the top costs about twenty dollars roundtrip. If you're going to try to be on the first bus, you'll need to buy your tickets the night before, as no one will be there to sell them before the crack of dawn. The ticket for Machu Picchu itself you'll have to buy in advance, as well (they also limit how many people can go here each day), and it will set you back another 56 dollars. And if you want to make sure that you get at least a few photos without any of those other people ticketed for the same day as you, you'll need to get up early. I got up at 4 to be at the bus stop an hour before the first one headed up the mountain at 5:30. I am NOT a morning person, and surrounded by tourists this early in the morning was not good for my morale.
As I was writing my postcards the night before (at a typically expensive, lackluster restaurant - pretty much the only kind there is in Aguas Calientes), I found myself asking if all this was worth it, or if, when I was finally face to face with Machu Picchu, I would just be disappointed. And the verdict? Honestly, it took my breath away in a way that I haven't felt in a long time. Not just the sun rising over the mountains, lighting up the farthest-away mountains before finally working it's way closer, over the ruins, and finally up Wayna Picchu...but the place itself. Three hours I spent happily snapping away over 200 photos. Every time I turned a corner there was a new angle to catch, a new scene of Wayna Picchu, a new flower to capture, a dizzying view of the valley below.
If you can go - GO! It is worth the time and money. It is worth the early wake up call. And once you get up on that mountain and see those ruins you will be filled with joy and peace and be at one with all the other tourists, glad to snap their photos and share this amazing place with them.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Tour du Jour

I hate going on "tours," and I kind of hate tourists. There is something obnoxious about someone blathering on and on when you just want to take in the scenery, snap photos, and make inferences in your own mind about what you're seeing. Not to mention the fact that standing around listening makes for tired feet. However, the ugly truth is that it is often cheaper and easier to join a tour than it is to find your own way to point B. Particularly in South America. This is how I ended up going on more tours in the last week than I have in the last five years.
Sillustani was another destination plucked from Jane's Discover Peru. They even had a beautiful picture of the funerary towers with Lake Umayo in the background. I decided I must go - however, it takes about an hour each way to get there, and rather than spend a lot of money on a taxi or mess around with combis, I paid a mere 35 soles and joined a tour. This was not too obnoxious as it was just the one site, and after loading us down with some information at the beginning (such as the fact that the entrance to the tower always faced the sun, and that the inside of the tomb was a rougher, conical shape while the outside had a more polished look and was cylindrical in nature, as seen above) he left us to our own devices. And inside the tombs? Mummies, of course, although they were loaded down with gold, and most of them are long gone, these three from the Museo Carlos Dreyer (which also has a nice display of gold and other objects in their display) being an exception.
The next day saw me on the Inka Express bus to Cuzco. The tour bus aspect of this experience was really just a means to an end, but it meant that I got to see some things and some places I ordinarily wouldn't have. The toritos (little bulls) made in Pukara, for example - you'll see them sitting on top of houses for decoration and good luck.
There was also the Q'ewar Project, a women's cooperative workshop that makes the most beautiful dolls I saw for sale on the trip.
Neither of these were actually meant to be highlights of the "tour" part of the bus ride. There were some Inka ruins, a couple of museums and probably the most garish church I've ever seen (including the ones I saw in Venice, and I saw a lot of churches in Venice). But these were the things I really looked forward to seeing (and buying).
No sooner had I gotten settled into my hostel in Cuzco (the Pantastico Hotel, which got laughs out of everyone I mentioned it to, as apparently "pan" is bread in Spanish - a purposeful pun, since it was a self-proclaimed bed-and-bakery which did, in fact, serve up some nice bread in the mornings) than I went out looking for YET ANOTHER tour. I originally intended to get to Aguas Calientes via a "gravity-assisted" bike ride. However, in the end I never heard back from the guys at Gravity Peru, and I decided that I wanted to see a little of the Sacred Valley on my way to the main event, so I went looking for a tour that would drop me off in Ollantaytambo where I could catch the train. Andina Travel (listed in Lonely Planet) made it happen for me - although I had to dash across the plaza to buy my train tickets before they were willing to sell me my trip (understandably, since it wouldn't really be much good to leave me there if I couldn't get on the train). For the low price of $31 I got to see the Inka ruins at Pisac (above), shop at their famous market, enjoy a delicious buffet lunch in Urubamba, and see MORE Inka ruins at Ollantaytambo (below....and if you are seeing a face in that mountainside, it's not just the coca tea - apparently the Inkas did that on purpose).
After a glut of Inka ruins, you might be tempted to say, "Well, you've seen one, you've seen them all." I admit that after so many, varied examples, I was worried that Machu Picchu might be a bit of a let down. After all, I'd seen skies of blue...clouds of white. The brightness of day...the darkness of night. I'd even thought to myself, "What a wonderful world!" and let me tell you, it was a lot less of a pain in the butt, and much cheaper than trying to get to Machu Picchu. Could it possibly live up to my expectations? Stay tuned to find out.

True or Phallus?

Okay, the truth is, this post has only a tangential connection to the above title. It's really about what I did in Puno. But when I came up with the title I thought it was so witty that I had to use it.
There is, supposedly, a Templo de Fertilidad 18 kilometers south of Puno in the small town of Chucuito. I wouldn't have known this from my standard Lonely Planet, because I didn't read up on all the south shore towns, but in the Evil One's "Discover Peru" Lonely Planet (ie, the edition of Lonely Planet that tries to be like all those other travel guides with lots more pictures and lots less content) mentioned it at the beginning of the chapter on Lake Titicaca, and these kinds of places have sort of become my thing. So I went. However, after reading up on it some, I did take the place with a grain of salt. The statues are undeniably phallic in shape, but after reading online that they were of not-exactly-known origin, and had, in fact, been lying around the town until one of the townies decided they ought to set them up as a tourist attraction...well, like I said, grain of salt. Not nearly as funny as Haesindang Gongwon in Korea, but an amusing way to spend a morning near Puno nonetheless.
The real reason, though, that people go to Puno is to see Lake Titicaca (now, tell me honestly that the name doesn't make you giggle...or blush...inside every time you read it...) It's the world's highest navigable (meaning by large boats that need enough depth to move in) lake at an altitude of 12,507 feet high. It's also South America's largest lake (in case that question ever comes up on a pub quiz, I expect you all to be able to answer it). And it's also home to the floating islands.
These really blew me away, and I swear I'm not becoming an avid-enviro, but I couldn't help admiring how "green" they were. I wasn't sure what to expect in the way of electricity on the island I stayed on, but it was hooked up with solar electricity. The islands are completely created from layers and layers of those reeds, called totori, and they also use them to build houses and boats, although the boats, at least, also contain plastic bottles, which other than great recycling help give the boats buoyancy.
There's not a whole lot to do on the islands, actually - it was very relaxing, but trekkers (of which I sort-of qualify) are not exactly used to a lot of down time. So when the family I was staying with decided it was time to play dress-up the gringos, the Russian couple staying there and I got to experience traditional dress. That's all I'm saying about that one.
I also learned about local costumes at - where else??? - the Coca Museum. You might not be surprised that coca is still a big part of Peruvian culture...and I'm not just talking about drug trafficking. They chew the leaves and drink it in tea. What did surprise me, however, was just how quickly my fellow gringos jumped on the coca train. The tea is widely prescribed as an antidote for altitude sickness. Altitude sickness sucks, by the way. Feeling like a big fat slob because you're out of breath after one flight up steps is not fun, but the headaches that went along with it were the worst. And so I can understand how a miracle elixir like coca tea would be tempting for your average lowlander - after all, not only does it cure your headache but is supposed to make you smarter, funnier, and sexier. However, religion aside, I am almost definitely going to be taking a drug test when I get to Mongolia, and everyone I met who raved about how much they loved coca tea seemed to be forgetting something - that where we come from, it is, in fact, a drug. So I found myself a good farmacia and mimed a headache (not hard at that point), and she set me up with some nice migraine pills that fixed me right up.