Thursday, January 31, 2013

Grub Club: Han Gang

It has been a terrible, horrible, no-good, very-bad week.  Hundreds of reports to write, a kick in the teeth from SADD, and I had to stay at school late (and by late, I mean til 8 - I've been at school til 5:45-7 every other night this week) tonight for the National Honor Society induction ceremony.  Don't get me wrong - I love my kids and I am normally the first person to attend an event to support them.  But I am drained and I am asking myself who the hell put the damn thing in the middle of reports (one class of which I had to re-enter for the fourth time because some of us can't just let bloody sleeping dogs lie).  Gah!
Normally Grub Club is something I look forward to, and I did this week as well, because it was Korean and I love me some Korean food.  However, in retrospect, I think I would have been better off sitting this one out, because I need more decompression/alone time than I've got this week.  Enough bitching.  Han Gang started by serving up some delicious pancheon (side dishes) - we had about a dozen refills of the pancake, altogether.  Their kimchi was really good, too.
I was dying for some dolsot bibimbap and kimchi jjigae myself, so I had both, and Geek (I finally came up with a nickname for her, although she's been lurking in these posts since October) ordered some mandu which rounded out the experience for me.  I suggested she try the chap chae, and she really liked it.  I tried some and it definitely passed the test.
Fire Marshall and Domestic Goddess ran late, thanks to a last minute basketball emergency, so I ordered a couple of things for them, including bulgogi, which was a big hit.  It had a nice, slightly sweet flavor, and the vegetables were awesome.
PE ordered fish.  I'm not into fish, so I didn't try it, but she liked it.  Apparently they do it really well.

I'm not sure when I'll write a new post.  I have some fun times coming up in the next week (the Winter Palace and hopefully wrestling, and the Harbin Snow and Ice Festival over our Tsagaan Sar long weekend), but I'm a little worn out from writing said report cards.  So I make no promises.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Grub Club: New Orleans Cafe (epic fail)

Well, this is what the grub club is all about.  Trying new things.  It is a fact of life that, when trying new things, at some point you're gonna fail.  This was one of those times.  In fact, I suspect Fearless Leader may have chosen New Orleans Cafe so that we could get that over with.  Nonetheless, it wasn't exactly pleasant - failing rarely is.
Sometimes you can just tell from a menu that it's going to be a trial.  Don't get me wrong, the food looks alright, but looking through the menu I didn't find anything that I REALLY wanted.  This was Engrish's New Orleans chicken.  It was pretty much indistinguishable from my cheese-coated chicken, except mine came with french fries instead of mashed potatoes (thank goodness!) 
Domestic Goddess made the best selection by far with her pizza.  I was scared off because they offered tuna pizza on the menu.  In my opinion, any place that offers tuna pizza can't be trusted, but they proved me wrong.  It had a nice flavor and a delicious crust, kinda flaky and chewy.  She failed on the drink selection, though - in the lower right hand side of the photo you'll notice her "martini."  They had a beautiful bar, but not much in the way of wine.  The waitress suggested a martini, and the above was what they brought her.  Admittedly the lemon was NOT their idea - Domestic Goddess added that herself, as an attempt to make it taste better.
Fearless Leader, who is a vegetarian most of the time, ordered "chili."  He was looking forward to a nice thick stew chock-full of beans.  Instead he got a thin soup with all the chunks of beef pictured above.  There were a few vegetables in it as well - mostly onions and carrots.  He also ordered a second dish, which never came, and the only dish Lit ordered never came, either - she had to steal a piece of Domestic Goddess' pizza so she didn't starve.
Fire Marshall was pretty happy with his pork, and took half of it home for lunch.  Unfortunately, I don't think he finished it because he felt sick later that night.  All in all it was a bust for us, but with Korean on the horizon for this Wednesday, this promises to be a better week.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Song of Fire and Ice

Two years ago my roommate in Shanghai went up to Harbin for their Snow and Ice Festival.  I've been jealous ever since.  So jealous, in fact, that I decided if I was getting a visa for Shanghai and hopefully Tibet, I might as well get the one-year visa and make 2013 the year of Chinese travel.  Yes, I know that kind of makes me ass backwards.  In fact, I do a lot of things ass-backwards...have you forgotten that I am the American girl, taught belly dance by an Aussie in Korea, who moved to the middle east only to learn the Korean martial art of hoi jeon moo sool?  Yup, that's me.
So I booked the ticket and the hotel, and got the visa over Christmas vacation, since the Chinese embassy here apparently only issues single-entries for non-Mongolians.  Lit had been kind of interested in going with me, but it turned out to be more expensive than she wanted to pay...although I must say that even with Fedex and the fees to expedite processing, my one-year still cost less than two single-entries.  I consoled her by promising we'd go see the ice sculptures here, at Sky Department Store.  One of our colleagues went over Christmas, and she had some really cool photos of the sculptures AND reindeer.
Well, this was the only reindeer to be found.  That was a little depressing, but hey, it gives me a really good reason to stick around after school one summer and make the long, LONG trek out to the taiga to see the Tsataan.  Because I really, really want to, even if it means a couple of weeks on a horse.
Anyways, back to the present.  Lit, Five, and I arrived early, and did some shopping in Sky before meeting the others for dinner at Mr. Wang's in the Chinggis Khaan Hotel (very good, but pricey!).  On the way in, we saw the sculptures by daylight, and they just aren't as impressive as when they are lit up.  The shopping was good, though - they had nice avocados and apparently those Russian caramel bon-bon thingies I love so much are being ordered in, this being the second time I found them this week.  During our food drive assembly that afternoon that candy is apparently a part of Tsaagan Saar, the Mongolian New Year, and I'm guessing this is why I'm able to find my favorite goodies (which is not as good a thing as I make it out to be, since I'm supposed to be establishing new, good habits). 
The ice sculptures were magical.  We had fun on the slides, sitting on Santa's lap, and giving bunny kisses.  I couldn't believe how smooth they were, like glass, and how they didn't feel that cold (at least not at first).  The picture of Domestic Goddess sprawled in the red....thing....above was taken after we had realized that it had a plant frozen inside the ice.  How cool is that?  (Pun totally intended, there).  I had to wonder where the blocks of ice for the sculptures came from.
Well, we wandered through a winter wonderland for about a half hour before the cold and the drive to get over to Hennessy's for the quiz (first time since we got cheated - still don't think it's that great a quiz but I do love me some trivia) drove us away.  It was pretty amazing and a good dry run for my aforementioned trip to Harbin next month - I've already thought of at least a half-dozen things I need to do or to pack before then.  Expect more ice pictures three weeks from now.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Grub Club: Gobi Cave

We had high hopes.  We really did.  For starters: hello?  Turkish food!  I love Turkish food.  It's some of the best Greek foods with some of the best Arabic foods.  Add to that the fact that it is a kitschy papier-mache cave decor.  I mean, you had me at giant snakes...
Alas!  That was the beginning and ending of it's brilliance.  We opened the menu, and half the items were stickered with "No."  Slightly less frustrating than being told "bah-kway" every time you try to order something, but still not a good sign.  Neither was the fact that they didn't have any mezze on the menu.  I mean, a Turkish restaurant that doesn't have hummus, baba ghanouj, or vine leaves?  Really???
I was excited, though, to see my favorite dish on the menu, iskander kebab.  I've had it in Seoul, Shanghai, and Istanbul itself, and it never fails to satisfy.  Well, not until now, at any rate.  For starters, they only do doner kebab on Fridays, so I had to have adana (a milder form of kofta), and the tomato sauce on top was more of a tomato paste.  We were all kind of dissatisfied with the food, although I've got to say, their salad was quite delicious.
In spite of all that, it was a great dining experience.  I got to sit next to the ever-classy Fire Marshall, in his second of four Star Wars t-shirts for the week.  And when PE's kid started getting restless, I let her play photographer with my phone.  She got very frustrated with the two of us because we couldn't both manage to keep a straight face - in her words, we were "too crazy."

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Every Other Saturday

Let me be totally and completely honest with you: I am a selfish person.  Perhaps not as selfish as some people...it's very easy for me to be loving and generous with people that I care about, but that's the thing.  Most people I DON'T care about.  In fact, there is a great number of people that I just.  Do.  Not.  Like.  There are altogether too many idiots in the world to suit me, and the older I've gotten, the more jaded I've become.
But there's hope for me yet, because I don't necessarily like feeling that way.  And although selfless is not necessarily my natural state, when I watched Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman work with the street kids here in UB on The Long Way Round, I decided I wanted to volunteer when I came here.  And it just so happened that Five, being sort of the opposite of me (look up selfless in the dictionary and guess whose picture you'll find), was already involved doing such a thing with the Lotus Foundation.  Which is how I came to spend a couple of Saturdays a month going out to Gaachurt to their orphanage.  That's the orphanage in the photo above.  If you're like me, you were thinking of something a little more Orphan-Annie.  Instead, it's fresh air and sunshine and puppies (quite literally - one of the earlier Saturdays I went out, one of the girls I was working with brought out a couple of teeny tiny pups) and room to run. 
The prospect in wintertime is a little more monochrome, but beats the heck out of UB!  When Enkhe drove us out this past Saturday, he thanked us for the chance to get out and run in the fresh air (yes, our driver runs in -20C weather, but that's another crazy story).
I was a little worried at first, trying to figure out what I would do with the kids, but Anna, one of the foreigners that helps coordinate things, told me that the main thing was just to spend time with them.  So we've done crafts and played card games, and once or twice I've been a life-size Barbie for hairstyling purposes. 
One of the Saturdays we went out in November they were having some sort of presentation.  It was really cool seeing the kids' confidence in speaking, even if we didn't understand exactly what was going on.  They've had people come up and do vocational training, too - the first week we went out, a chef (who was Aussie, I think...or maybe Belgian) was teaching the kids how to make different pastries and things.
That week, the founder, Didi, had a flash of inspiration and suggested we spend some time with a couple of students each, helping them to improve their English.  So they got the groups together and we met our students for the first time last week.  I was really impressed by how smart my kids were - the 45 minutes we worked together flew by quicker than any lesson ever did at GDA!
We've had Enkhe drive us out the last two times we went - after two and a half months, we still hadn't figured out what time we needed to catch the Gaachurt bus, and it was just too cold out to stand outside and wait 45 minutes while our toes turned to popsicles.  This had the great result that we got to spend more time with the kids (because it took a half hour to get out there, instead of two hours).  Normally this is how we look at the end of a day, taking a taxi back from near the Kempinski!  Either way, it's well worth it, not only because of the good karma (we're attributing the free tickets to see Giselle back in November to this karma), but because of the happiness on the kids' faces. 

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Home for the Holidays

They say there's no place like home for the holidays.  Well, I could probably think of a few places that would have made pretty fine holidays (warm, sunny places), but a promise is a promise, and let me tell you, people, family is far less likely to freak out on you for skipping off on a Himalayan adventure (as I would like to, this summer) if you've paid your dues at Christmas.  And I love my family, so, you know, no big.
Like I mentioned on Saturday, I thought about doing a series of blogs about Omaha, but it didn't happen.  So here's a whirlwind blog of Christmas in Munchkinland.  For starters, you've got my mom and her "peeps."  Every week or so these "ladies who lunch" do lunch - in Glenwood, or elsewhere, and sometimes see a movie.  They're kind of like the G-wood chapter of the Grub Club.  Of course, there are a few less choices in a small Midwestern town of 5,000 than there are in bustling UB, but they have a good time and are always happy to see me, in spite of the fact that I'm a total brat.
Then there's the Winter Quarters temple (oh yeah, and my new haircut.  I was starting to get snarls the likes of which I have not seen since I was ten years old, so I chopped it off and sent it to Locks of Love).  Here in UB, Mormons in good standing are supposed to go to Hong Kong for the temple.  Me, I'm more of a Seoul girl (much cheaper, and oh, the memories), but the Winter Quarters temple is sort of my temple, so of course I had to visit.  And while I was there...
...I had to check out the gingerbread display at the Visitor's Center.  Mormons are sort of into crafty stuff - heck, we were scrapbooking before it was popular (I need a pair of hipster glasses for that statement).  This makes sense - if you're not going to spend your free time boozing and picking up men, you gotta do something (the men of the church play sports - Mormon basketball is one of the world's most dangerous sports, especially if you've got a lot of Tongans and Samoans in your stake).  Anyways, as I was saying, we do crafty stuff, including gingerbread.  Now, when I was a young, innocent single Mormon girl, my singles branch, the good ol' Independence 5th, had a Family Home Evening once a year dedicated to making gingerbread houses for the visitor's center.  They were monstrosities, often made of graham crackers, unless Sister D and Sister P were feeling ambitious and did a whole lot of baking for us (and they often did).  But they were made from scratch, one way or the other.  None of this prefab, cookie cutter gingerbread house business.  As you can see, there were plenty of AWESOME original designs, but also far too many that came out of a box.
 
But then, I couldn't help myself from picking up a prefab gingerbread house to decorate with the Princess.  I mean, she's just so damn adorable.  And just try to stop her from eating that candy.  You know she's thinking about it.  The Princess lives in Utah with my brother Shaggy and his wife, which I find hilariously ironic since I'm the Mormon.  And until I sat down to write this blog I hadn't even considered that it might seem I was trying to indoctrinate my adorable niece into the crafty Mormon lifestyle.  I'm not, Abby, I swear!
I also got the chance to catch up with my high school AP English teacher, Drim.  She's retired now, or else she would have brought me into school to tell her World Lit classes all about my adventures (I know, she's done it to me before).  As it was, she threatened to call the town paper and tell them to do an interview with me, which seems bizarre to me, because even if I AM a little Iowa girl living in Mongolia, to me, that's just what I do.  No big.  After lunch at the Spaghetti Works I took a stroll around the Old Market, and wandered into my favorite part (not least because it is inside), the Passageway.  It sort of reminds me of the galleries of Paris, now that I've been there.
I have had felting on the brain, and decided some felting needles and wool roving would go a ways toward alleviating my night time boredom, so I finally tried needle felting.  Ariel there was my second attempt - I made a dragon for my first, but it didn't turn out as well.  Practice makes perfect, they say.
But the best thing of all about being home is, of course, the kids.  Bunny here was born the Friday before I came home and she is just about as sweet as can be.  I still had my UB cough for a week or so after I got home, so it took me that long to see her.  And it's still a little strange to think that my Babysis had her own baby.
The Dirt Devil is Shaggy's own personal mini-me, in my humble opinion.  Shaggy's hair was never that red, but he DEFINITELY had that mischievous gleam in his eye.  Dirt Devil doesn't talk much yet, but he's got the most infectious giggle.  I'd have packed him up in my suitcase and taken him back, but he's his momma's boy and it would have broken his heart <3 br="br">
And finally, our Princess.  Words can't do her justice, just take a look at my sibling's faces.  She just LOVED her princess dresses from her grandma - she danced around in front of the mirror on her tiptoes while the rest of us laughed so hard we cried.  Like I said.  Too.  Damn.  Cute.  I miss those kids already!

Friday, January 4, 2013

The Beginning and the End

Two and a half weeks later, I am sitting back here in Ulaanbaatar.  Sorry it's been so long; the internet at my parent's house takes more patience than I have to do much more than check my email and facebook.  I thought about doing a series of posts on Omaha, but that just didn't happen.  I do have a few things to share with you, but they can wait til tomorrow.

Someone once said that getting there is half the fun.  Generally I hope that person died a horrible death.  Getting from point A to point B is NOT fun, not in the age of airplanes, at any rate.  I hate being squished into a tiny seat with tiny legroom next to a complete stranger, who may smell bad, be sick, or take up your armrest.  In fact, I learned a new level of seatmate hell yesterday.  The man next to me on the flight to UB snored the whole way.  I mean it; we weren't even off the ground before he fired up his jackhammer.  And I'm not exaggerating the strength of his snore.  It was bad.  I spent the entire flight with my headphones on.

However, this trip taught me a new love for "getting there."  When I booked it, I had three choices, essentially.  I could have a long layover in Beijing, Seoul, or Chicago.  Well, I've been stuck in Chicago overnight, it's no fun, and I had absolutely no desire to find out what Beijing's airport was like at 3 in the morning.  Korea, on the other hand....I have friends still in Korea, and if they weren't available, Seoul has the charming quality of being a city where there's stuff to do 24 hours a day.  So even if it was a little more expensive, I went with the Korean Air flight, and this has slightly altered my thinking on whether or not it's fun to "get there."
Haesindang Gongwon - ah, memories.
On the way home, I had 14.5 hours in Seoul.  Azhaar, the best of all belly dance teachers and my personal friend, is a night owl anyways, so I crossed my fingers that she'd be available, and she was.  We met up in Itaewon (it was close to 11 pm by then) and ate the first doner kebabs I've had in a long, long time.  They were delicious!  Not ready to go home yet, we hit Tom-N-Tom's for coffee and hot chocolate and one of my favorite snacks, their honey butter bread, and sat and talked for a good long while.  Another one of her students, whom I've met before, was with us, and we had a good time hanging out and talking, before she went her way home and we went ours (in opposite directions, as it turns out), and Azhaar and I stayed up even later, catching up on what was going on in each others' lives, while I admired her humidifier (it was a really cool humidifier - I don't normally admire such things).  The next morning we had brekke at Macca's - the first time I'd been to one of them in a long, long age - and she sent me off to the airport for my long-haul flight.  Not bad.
Just another night at the office

On the way back to UB, I had even more time - I got in at 5 and didn't leave again til 1 the next day.  I crossed my fingers and hoped and prayed I'd get to see my Dark Lord and Master (of all the people I've worked for, my favorite, in spite of the fact that I lived in terror of the man for my first four months in Korea) on this layover.  I had a little more time and I got in a little earlier, which would mean I wouldn't have to keep his family up waiting for me.  And up until I was on the ground at Incheon, I wasn't sure how it was going to work out, since I had technical difficulties with Skype in Iowa, but it worked out just fine.  I had a little bit of time to reminisce in Samsung Plaza (I refuse to call it anything else, even if the name has changed) and then we went for some galbi up in the 'Dong (Bundang-dong, my old stomping grounds) before going for coffee near Samsung Plaza.  It was awesome catching up.  Afterwards I stayed at a bathhouse near Sunae Station.  The next morning I tried for breakfast at Butterfinger Pancakes in Jeongja, which had a sign up that said, "Sorry - currently out of order" (???) so I shivered my way over to the closest Tom-N-Tom's for more honey butter bread and to plan my next move.  I'd thought about the fact that my ears were desperately in need of a cleaning, and that the ENT I used before wasn't far, so I ended up going over there.  I'm not sure if my health insurance would have paid for it or not - I've been told that our insurance is more or less worthless - but it was only 25,000 won, so I could absorb the cost without any problem.  Although considering my seatmate on the way back to UB, maybe I should have gone looking for an electric blanket instead.  Oh well.  The moral of the story is that Korea is a great place to be stuck overnight.  Of course, I realize that if you didn't know the city you wouldn't have had as much fun as me, but if you ever take my advice and want to go have fun, I can give you directions, because I'm just that awesome.

And also, Korean Air is an awesome airline.  Not only did they fix my luggage issue (caused by American's representative in Omaha) and change my suitcase to go through all the way to UB instead of making me pick it up in Seoul, they were able to change my seat to an aisle seat (which was unavailable when I checked in) at the last minute.  That's dedication.