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.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Chasing Waterfalls

I hated the idea of going out of town to see just one thing.  Mongolia has so many things to go see, but they are spaced so far across this gorgeous countryside.  In three days I thought we'd make it all over both Ovorkhangai and Arkhangai provinces, taking in not only Kharkhorin but also the Orkhon Waterfall, Zanabazar's workshop at Tovkhon Khiid, the old, old capital ruins at Khar Balgas, and Ugii Lake on our way back to UB.  Those of you who have lived in Mongolia longer than me are, no doubt, laughing your ass off.  You could do those sorts of distances in the States, or in other countries I've lived in - Korea, the Emirates, etc.  However, this isn't one of those countries.  This is Mongolia.
So Enkhe had the unenviable job of bringing me down to earth.  He suggested going to see the waterfall during the first day, then going up to Kharkhorin on the second day.  He wanted us to stay with a herding family he was friends with for the second night, but it's moving season around here, so we ended up renting a guest ger both nights, and were lucky to get even that!  Near the waterfall there would usually be a lot of gers set up; we had just about the only one available at the moment.  This experience was just about comparable to the one in August, actually.  The fire went out but it wasn't noticeably colder than it was two months ago.  This bed was far less comfortable, though, and made me think longingly of my super-hard Asian mattress.
We picked up a hitchhiker on our way to the waterfall, the first one in my life.  We are taught from a young age in America that hitchhiking is dangerous - you don't pick up hitchers, and you don't do it yourself.  This is another difference for Mongolia.  The lack of a cross-country public transit system in places and expense of a car kind of make it a necessity.  Our hitcher was only going a few miles, from the entrance to the national park to his ger, pictured above, but I met foreigners at the immigration office who had been all over the country this way.  I probably won't be trying it anytime soon, but it's interesting to think that the US used to be this way, once upon a time.
You may notice that I've said very little about the waterfall in this post.  That's because it was a very, very long drive over the harsh roads I mentioned in the previous post.  Luckily this is a country filled with lots of beautiful scenery, so the drive never got too dull, especially with Five and Engrish for company, as well as Enkhe's interesting tidbits (did you know that there's no word in Mongolian for a queue/line?  They use a Russian word for it; apparently they didn't need a word for it until Communism came to town).  At the point when I took this picture, though, I had a headache in full swing and motion sickness on its way - that's how rough the driving was.  I asked Enkhe to stop so I could take a picture of the lone stupa on the hillside (it's a little white speck, you'll need a larger view of the photo to see it) and since we were stopped, I went up the hill to check out the rather elaborate ovoo.  I felt a little better by the time I got back in the car.
We had either very good luck or very good timing (possibly both) because when we got to the waterfall the sun was just going down, which made for some really beautiful light.  The waterfall itself was amazing.  We weren't sure what we were going to find; Lonely Planet mentions that sometimes it doesn't run, depending on what the weather's been like.  I managed to find a picture of it taken 12 days before, so we were hopeful and once again, we got lucky.  You could hear it pounding over the edge as you got closer.  Strangely enough, I was expecting it to come from a higher point to hit at our level, but there actually isn't anything to tell you where it is.  Luckily Enkhe had been here, although five years had passed since then.
Here's a shot from the following morning.  I'm sure it looks great in summer, but I think we got lucky, again, because the ice makes it even better.  After one last look (and Five and Engrish checking to see if their Inukshuk was still standing - it was) we started the drive for Kharkhorin.

On the Road Again

To have a really great travel experience, I think you need 4 things:
1. Good travel companions
2. A good destination
3. Good timing and a little luck
4. Some adventure along the way
This week is our fall break, and a couple of friends (Engrish and Five, to be exact) and I decided to go to Kharkhorin, Mongolia's capital in days of yore.  We hired a friend's driver and his "Land Rover" (a Toyota Vista that I swear had a titanium undercarriage) to take us out there and back.  He used to be a tour driver and he speaks English pretty well.  So that's a great big check for number 1.  I'll talk about numbers 2 and 3 in subsequent posts.  That leaves us with number 4: some adventure along the way.  Where do I begin?  How about animal crossings?  You've all seen deer crossing signs, right?  I've even seen a camel crossing sign or two in my day.  Here in Mongolia, we don't have the signs, but we've got crossings aplenty:
 Cattle crossing, of course.
 And horse crossing.
Goat and sheep crossing.
And although they weren't actually crossing the road at the time, I was very excited to see my first yaks.  So excited I made Enkhe (our driver) stop so I could take a picture of them.  Enkhe is an amazing driver.  He never got tired, never complained, and only got a little off course while driving down roads that hardly existed.
I mean, I have an almost perfect sense of direction, and I think even I couldn't memorize the path through here.  He got us back on track and on our way quickly enough after this, and we got to see a little more of this gorgeous landscape.  We also got stuck a couple of times.
There were tons of crossings back and forth over the Orkhon River on our first and second day (getting out to the waterfall and back).  Each time we held our breath, because that water was COLD, if you can't tell by the ice, and getting stuck anywhere is no fun.  During one of the last, Enkhe got stopped by a big sheet of ice.  We girls got out and convinced him to let us push, and once we got a rhythm between the four of us he was out of the river in no time.
Enkhe assures us that off-roading is a standard part of the Mongolian driver's license test.  I couldn't help remembering my dad's driving as we were soaring over boulder-strewn tracks that could only be loosely classified as "roads."  I'm not sure even he - in his truck - could keep up with Enkhe.  (If you'd like to hire him, send me an email and I'll put you in touch...with Enkhe, that is, not my dad, although he is retired and if you find yourself stranded near Omaha he might just be willing to help you out).
On our last day, heading back to UB, Enkhe stopped at Mongol Els, a sand dune that wandered out of the Gobi and couldn't find its way back (that's my story, anyways).  After pushing and digging and digging and sticking bones and the tread of an old tire under his wheels and pushing some more, Enkhe finally went after help.  Fortunately someone was home at a nearby ger and he brought his truck over to help pull us out.  We gave him some of the snacks we still had as a thank you.  That's how we roll out here.
The aftermath of our labors.  It's a good thing I'd already decided not to be prissy and worry about sand in my clothes/hair/ears, etc, because let me tell you - 24 hours and a shower later, and I'm still finding sand.  Totally worth it...but it DOES make me wonder if I'm ready for the Gobi, where I am assured being stuck in sand happens on a regular basis...

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Grub and Pub

This is a bit of a hybrid of my normal Mongolia posts.  We're on vacation for the next week, so Grub Club is on hiatus, but last night we went to THE hotpot place, which I've heard a lot about but never been invited to go to, while my grubbies had, and thus, was not likely to come up on a normal Grub Club night.  I didn't eat hotpot as much in China as I did xiaolongbao, but it was a great cold weather food nonetheless, and in case you didn't read my post last week, it has gotten cold here lately - in fact, the snow was coming down pretty heavy again tonight.  This hotpot - The Bull, above Los Angeles restaurant a block west of the Circus on Seoul Street - was pretty similar to what I've had in Shanghai, except with horsemeat and without the dodgy poppy shells.  And by the way, horse meat tastes just fine - not gamey or anything - but with all the other flavors floating around, it's hard to know exactly what you're tasting.
 After hotpot it was off to Hennessy's to defend our Pub Quiz title.  Last week four of us went out there to check it out and left with the title.  And I do mean the title.  That's all we got.  What kind of quiz gives you nothing for winning but bragging rights, I ask?  One like this.  I love quiz nights, I do, but I was not overly impressed with this one.  For starters, I couldn't take part in two of the rounds - the quizmaster did two drinking rounds - one liquor identification and one chugging contest.  I can kind of see how the i.d. could be considered trivia, but chugging?  No.  Although it is a pretty bar, with some impressive decor in the bathroom.
Last week we won by two and a half points, which I thought was odd because we faced off against two teams of Mongolians and one of Russians.  However, the quizmaster tried to put together a balanced quiz with plenty of Mongolian questions, so I didn't think too much about it.  Last night there were more teams, including more foreigners, but the team that beat us only had one westerner on it, and they supposedly beat us by six points.  Now, I don't like to bring out the c-word...no, not that one - I meant cheat...but one of the girls on their team came over to ask us, in the middle of a round, where we were from, and looked at our answer sheet while we were still figuring out that she was on another team, and not a waitress.  Now, they had a significant lead over us when all was said and done, so in the end, it probably didn't matter that she TOTALLY LOOKED AT OUR PAPER (yes, I know I sound like a high schooler), but you know what?  I'm calling shenanigans.  Because there is no way a team of five Mongolians and one Westerner should have been able to beat us.  That probably sounds racist, but I assembled a crack team, and one of the reasons why my quiz bowl trivia club for school was shot down was that trivia is so closely linked with culture, and it would be really hard to run a trivia club with Mongolian students.  There were not enough Mongolian questions to make that much of a difference.  Also, harkening back to school, we were told that our students don't really think of cheating the same way that we do - that finding the correct answer isn't wrong - so I wouldn't be surprised to learn that some of our opponents were using their smartphones to look up answers.  Shenanigans, I say!
We, on the other hand, came by our win honestly.  But in the end, I guess it doesn't matter.  There's no real prize for winning, no 400 kuai worth of vouchers, bottles of wine, or Sunday roasts, and between our dodgy loss, the lackluster quiz, and the fact that 20,000 tugrugs disappeared from the money we left on the table after we counted it for the third time (the waitress came after us while we were assembling outside after a last bathroom break), I doubt we'll be back.  In fact, there was talk of starting our own quiz, but that would require breaking up the dream team.

To end this on an unrelated but somewhat humorous note...so Five and I have been going out to Gachuunt to volunteer at the Lotus Foundation orphanage on a biweekly basis.  The volunteering has been good for me - I'm an entirely-too-selfish person - and I will, no doubt, write about it some weekend in the future.  However, we've noticed that we attract a lot of attention.  This is nothing new to me, but it apparently takes a little lubricant to give a guy the nerve to use the same five phrases with us over, and over, and over, until one of us gets off the bus.  I say this because not only did this happen on the way back two weeks ago, it also happened this morning on the way to Gachuunt and again on the way back to UB (being chatted up by drunks on a bus twice in one day?  Excellent).  The way back was one of those fantastically surreal experiences.  The guy quit talking to us after he picked someone else's child up (a bit scary, since - between the alcohol and the road conditions, he was none-too-steady on his feet!) and deposited her on Five's lap before sitting down on someone he may or may not have known, but then I made the mistake of making eye contact with him, and he came back to chat at us in Mongolian, with the occasional interjection of "Chinggis!", "Very Good!", "No Good!", or "Sorry!"  I haven't quite decided if the highlight was having a singalong with him to "Hey Jude" and "Yesterday" (he mentioned Paul McCartney in one of his monologues), or if it was when he decided to show Grade 5 the scar on his chest from the bullet wound he received in Vietnam (we weren't able to convince him that she wasn't Vietnamese, no more than we were able to convince him or the guy from this morning that I wasn't Russian - I'm still not sure whether to be insulted or flattered, but since Mongolia has as functional relationship with Russia as just about anyone, I guess the answer is neither).

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Grub Club: Luna Blanca

This week has been ridiculously long.  This week has felt longer than any week since school started.  I'm very disappointed in this week.  Bad, bad week.  This might have contributed to me being in a sulk last night, but there were other factors.  Needless to say, by the time I got to Luna Blanca - I say "I" because I allowed myself to be separated from my buddies and ended up going to the wrong vegetarian restaurant (there are two of them within a block of each other) - I didn't particularly consider myself to be fit company for anyone.  And THEN I found out this "healthy" restaurant didn't serve coke!  If ever I needed a coke, it was then.  I turned around and left the restaurant.
 
 And after I bought myself a couple cokes at the shop two doors down, I came back.  I mean, I may not have been fit for company, but I was hungry.  And I'd seen Sichuan tofu on the menu, and I love me some tofu.  You can see my coke there - I felt like quite the infidel, bringing something so unhealthy into a place that advertises having "healthy food."  Seriously, their drinks were all smoothies and juices and feel good shit like that.  Even the one beer they had was non-alcoholic.  I mean, what's the point of that?  The tofu was good, although there was quite a bit of stuff to eat around (peppercorns and red pepper skins).  The salad in the background is PE's - it looked delicious.
However, next time we go back (if we go back - it took a loooooong time before everyone had eaten) I believe I'll have the dumpling platter.  They were amazing (a couple of my buds shared, in spite of my bad mood).

On a related but separate note, my eating habits have rapidly gone downhill since we got paid a month ago, and I haven't been feeling too sexy.  On a whim I decided to borrow the key to the dance room after school today and ended up practicing for the better part of an hour.  This was the first time I've danced in a good long while, and at first it was kind of painful, seeing in the mirrors exactly what I've let myself become.  But then I got over it, and really remembered why I love belly dance so much.  I left feeling worked out with that nice sweat smell (yes, my sweat smells nice), and didn't feel hungry.  I need to do this more often.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Technicolor Dreamshots

So I went looking for a tree today.  This isn't a normal activity for me - I am not some kind of hippie environmentalist who gets attached to specific trees, but a friend of mine took this amazing picture of a tree that had been covered with scarves, and I decided I needed my very own picture of it (note: my picture is not as good as his, but there was snow on the ground and I wasn't wasting time trying to get the perfect shot while my ass was freezing!)
Getting there wasn't too hard - while my hike was a fairly long one, it wasn't too steep at any point, and it was a picturesque, if particularly cold day.  I wasn't really planning on hiking, but it was really sunny and I figured once I got going, I'd keep fairly warm, and it was true.  I'd better enjoy the outdoors as long as I can - cabin fever is definitely in the forecast!
Other than the scarves, the day itself had a lot of color - the needles on the trees have turned golden.  The trees are coniferous, but they aren't evergreen, which seems really weird to me.  At any rate, they made an amazing contrast to the blue sky, and I had to restrain myself from taking a photo every five steps (I say I had to because my battery was running low and I was hoping the archers would be practicing this weekend so I could take pictures.  I finally made it down to the stadium were they had been the last several weeks, but alas! they were nowhere to be seen )-:
The silk scarves are called khadags, and are part of the Buddhist/Shamanistic tradition.  From what I understand, they can be a token of respect or reverence; you give them to people you respect when you greet them, as well as in other ceremonies.  I brought my own scarf to tie on the tree - the red one above.  The blue ones are most common here (remember how I keep mentioning the sky???) but I bought a set of five at Naraan Tuul and decided the red one best represented my hopes of staying warm on my hike.


Thursday, October 11, 2012

Fire-Kissed

Just call me a wildling girl, because I'm on the wrong side of the wall, and I hate to break it to you Starks, but winter ain't coming...it's already here.
We've had snow a few times in the last couple of weeks, but they've been short, erratic bursts that are over before they begin.  It's definitely been cold, but not that cold.  Well, that's changed.  I looked out the window this morning and the snow was coming down, with little drifts in the parking lot, so of course, I went out to the balcony at the end of the hall to take a picture.  This really shouldn't come as a surprise, I guess.  I've been thankful that the "warm" weather has lasted as long as it has, but the city finally turned their hot water on this past week (messing with the school-administered hot water) and it has been too hot to sleep under my down comforter as a result (I suppose I'll be thankful for it as the mercury continues to drop.)  The really funny thing is, we decided to do a fire drill today, before the weather got any colder, so I guess it's a good thing that we decided to do a proper cold-weather fire drill, in which we bring the kids over to the residence building.  Anyways, times they are a changing - thought y'all ought to know.


Grub Club: Sakura

As you may or may not know, Japanese food is not my favorite, so when Engrish chose Sakura (in the most ghetto looking - from the outside - looking Kempinsky Hotel in the world) for this week's grub club, I was not that excited.  However, it has been growing on me, and another friend told me they had good donkatsu (pork cutlet), so I figured it would be just fine.
 
Sure enough, I ordered the donkatsu...or technically, chicken-katsu, since I read that pork is typically pretty cruelly raised and as yet I haven't been able to convince myself to eat it.  And I DO like Japanese curry, so I got the one that comes with curry.  13,000 tugrugs is pretty steep for fried chicken and curry, and it didn't rock my world (I like my curry as hot as it comes, and this was mild), so probably I should have been a little more adventurous.  Still, not bad.
 
Engrish went for an udon hotpot, and since we started keeping track (so out of three meals) this was her favorite dish.  Fearless Leader went for udon as well, but his was of the fried vegetarian variety.  They both had sushi as well, and it looked so good when it came out that Mad Science had to order some, as well.  In fact, I think she and Fearless Leader both agreed that it was their favorite part of the meal.  We also learned that our friendly, neighborhood Mad Scientist carries around wasabi and soy sauce for emergencies.  I haven't figured out what kind of emergency would call for soy sauce yet, but I've read the Series of Unfortunate Events and I know how handy wasabi can be!
 Mad Science and Phys Ed both had the same main course - a set menu of...something...with a variety of condiments (I think they meant sides - miso and pickled veggies and whatnot).  It wasn't my cup of tea, but they both seemed to like it.
Speaking of cups of tea, Mad Science and Engrish decided to split the pot pictured above, and enjoyed it a lot.  At the end of the meal, the waitress brought us all a cup of black tea, which was really nice even if you don't drink tea.  The service was really good, and the price wasn't bad (as long as you didn't order the cutlet), and even if the Kempinsky is a little out of the way, it was a good experience, so I'd recommend it...even if I'm hoping to find a teppanyaki place the likes of good ol' Gintei myself.  Til next time~

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Fair's Fair

So today wrapped up the Ulaanbaatar Art Fair.  This was an event I stumbled onto somewhat haphazardly - I found a copy of "That's UB" magazine at BD's Mongolian Grill when I went back there, and it listed the art fair...it listed it for the wrong weekend, but in the end I got the right information and a friend and I went to see it before slaving over our stoves for that day's feast in honor of the Canadians' Thanksgiving.
 It was held in the fairly opulent Zanabazar Art Museum.  Zanabazar (aka, the Michaelangelo of the Steppes) might just be the most famous artist in all of Mongolia.  He was a statesman and holy man, and was sent as a teenager to study with the Dalai Lama in Tibet (this would have been a few incarnations back), so as you might guess, the museum features historic and religious Mongolian work, including sculptures by the man himself.
And that was great and all, but we had actually come to see the art fair (there is a side gallery at the museum - according to Lonely Planet this is called the Red Ger Art Gallery.  The art in the show was nice, and there were some really cool pieces of art, including some felted pieces.  But...don't take this the wrong way...but I was a little underwhelmed.  See, my hometown Kansas City plays host to 3 art fairs a year (or at least they used to), and each one was big.  These fairs were all held outdoors and included sculpture, painting, photography...you name it, they had it.  I shouldn't have compared.  I know I ain't in Kansas anymore, Toto, and what they had was definitely quality, but there are SO many people selling their art out of folders on the streets that I guess I was just expecting quantity to go along with it.  Selfish, I know.  But I did enjoy it, and my friend got some good ideas for a field trip for her class, so it was a Sunday morning well spent (even if I DID ditch church).

Friday, October 5, 2012

All....That....Jazz

Tonight I headed back to the Blue Sky for the second Friday in a row for the big finale of the 6th Annual Giant Steppes of Jazz Festival here in Ulaanbaatar.  I don't think I've seen any jazz since the Tamuz Jazz Trio at Katharos, when I was staying with Bronte last summer, and even if I have, listening to jazz always makes me think of her (she, V, and my Dark Lord took me out to Blue Moon in Apgujeong for my 28th birthday). 

The jazz festival here couldn't beat Katharos for ambience (or Blue Moon, for that matter), but the talent was incredible.  They had musicians from all over the world (except the States, which I found a little irksome since it's OUR art form), and of course some Mongolian musicians, too - not only the ensemble with the horsehead fiddles above (playing Disney music - hello!), but also a couple who sang an original composition in Mongolian...with some English words thrown in on the refrain for coolness...or emphasis (you know, whatever).  There were also a couple of musicians who played jazz flute which made my heart go pit-a-pat (I was a flautist in a past life...)  Anyways, lots of nostalgia, lots of good music, and well worth 35,000 tugrugs.