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).