Friday, October 25, 2013

Grub Club: Seoul Galbi

 My grub club posts are getting later and later each week.  I should tell you how sorry I am and beg for your forgiveness, but considering I wrote 160-some report cards this week (and didn't half-ass it like some of my colleagues, who apparently think that comments are optional), you'll just have to suck it up.

So.  This week Geek redeemed herself a little by choosing a pretty good Korean place, Seoul Galbi.  What did we eat?  Daeji galbi (pork bbq), kimchi jjigae (kimchi stew), and dolsot bibimbap (stone hotpot with rice and veggies).  And lots and LOTS of pancheon.  One of the best thing about Korean restaurants (when they're done right, which is not always a guarantee outside of Korea) is the free, refillable side dishes, and Seoul Galbi had some good ones, let me tell you.  They had the little rolled up egg one, they had the pancakes (buchim), and they even had cucumber kimchi.  It was soooo good.

I do have a complaint, though - our server didn't come stand at our table and cook our food for us.  Luckily we had an experienced griller (this girl) at the table.  I would have preferred Coach do the honors, since he's the grillmaster extraordinaire and I just wanted to eat, but since he's been MIA for the last two dinners, I had to fill in.  Unfortunately, I didn't do the best job - I charred enough bits of meat to give a Korean cancer (that's an inside joke - my fellow weiguks should get it).
This is what was left as we were getting ready to depart.  We really cleaned up.  The kimchi jjigae was good, but I ran out of rice, and you really have to live in Korea to love it enough to clean that sucker out.  Squeaker ordered some sort of chicken stew thing, which is the other half-eaten dish you'll see.  I tried to warn her off it, since she'd never had Korean food, and I (in all my years in Korea) had never even heard of it, but it was half-hearted.  Grub Club is all about trying new things, after all.  Sometimes it's just a swing and a miss.

Seoul Galbi is just off Peace Avenue on the south side, between the Blue Sky building and the bridge you cross going east from there (closer to the bridge than Blue Sky), and pretty reasonably priced (a plate of daeji galbi cost 28,000 tugrugs, and was enough for three people).

Monday, October 21, 2013

Soviet City

(Or, alternatively: Back in the USSR)

Last night we got to see an amazing performance at the State Ballet by the Stars of the Russian Ballet.  I haven't seen men in tights since May or so, when we went to Don Quixote, which is clearly too long!  My only complaint is that the best pas de deux, in my opinion, was the second performance of the night, which made the rest of the very spectacular performances kind of a letdown.  I think I liked that one so much because it was just so different - not only was it set to Regina Spektor's "Après Moi," which made a nice contrast to the classical music that all the other performers danced to, but there was also such passion behind this dance, that it really just killed everything else for me.  I wanted to see more modern ballet like that!

Well, I wrote about the ballet already last year, but while last night's performance was the reason why I didn't sit down and blog yesterday, it also makes a good introduction to my topic for this week.  When reading about Ulaanbaatar you will not be able to escape the description of its ugliness, and how it has such a Soviet-era feel to it.  This is absolutely true, on both accounts.  UB is not going to win any beauty pageants for many a moon, but there is good reason for that.
If you look closely between the two ridgelines, you can see Zaisan Hill, where the above monument is now located.
Here's a photo of Ulaanbaatar from 1913 - a hundred years ago (you can see it and more like it in this post from Wall to Watch).  There's not a lot there, but that's what happens when you have a nomadic population.  You pull up tent stakes - or in Mongolia's case, ger posts - a few times a year, which means there's not much permanent development. 

That all changed when communism came to town.  Mongolia has a history with Russia, and while you might not jump off a bridge if your friend does it, when Russia jumped off the communism bridge, Mongolia decided they should, too (the looming presence of China might have had something to do with this).  And while communism might be long dead in Outer Mongolia, the friendship with Russia lives on, as does its communist legacy.

For starters, there was a Lenin statue downtown up until last fall.  I've heard that in Russia you'd be hard-pressed to find either Lenin or Stalin, but although this statue was removed and sold, there are still remnants of him scattered around.  A building on east Peace Avenue, less than a block away from my favorite Indian place has "BИ ЛЕНИН" spelled into its side in bricks.  And the monument whose picture started this post, the Zaisan Memorial, has him pictured next to Sukhbaatar.
You'll see sculpture in the city made in the Soviet style.  Even if you know nothing about art, you should be able to pick on the not-so-subtle nuances in this photo and the top one of Zaisan.  Not only do they show epic themes of the people and the military, but the squarish, stylizes figures absolutely scream communism.

While you can't read too much into t-shirts in Asia (my favorite being one I saw in Korea, "A call to all chunkily penised men to do her and do her well"), in Mongolia it's a pretty fair bet that they know what the hammer and sickle mean, even without CCCP printed underneath.  In case you didn't know, CCCP is USSR in Cyrillic, and until the recent past there was a Russian restaurant by that name in town.  I may be wrong, but I have a feeling not even the hippest hipsters back home would be caught ironically wearing a communist t-shirt.

And I haven't even gotten to the architecture yet.  As I said earlier, just about everything in UB has been built since the beginning of the communist era, under the influence of Soviet style.  Well, the Soviets were definitely more about function than form, which is unfortunate, but since everything up here on the hill has been built in the last 8 or so years, we don't have to look at it (since mostly what I see out my window is construction, I'd probably prefer the ugly communist apartment blocks, but what can you do?)  But there is at least one nice aspect of these buildings:
Mosaic murals adorning the walls.  Many buildings have these taking up one whole wall on the outside, and again you may notice the sharp-edged figures, but the scenes are so nationalistic, featuring the Mongolian people and scenes from the countryside that you have to love them.  And while its communist years might not have been Mongolia's finest hour, their relationship with Russia not only saved them from being absorbed by China, it continues to reap benefits such as gorgeous visiting cavaliers from the Russian ballet.  All countries should be so lucky.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Grub Club: Mexikhan

I should've been DYING to come home and write this blog last night.  Instead, I had a hard time convincing myself to take my shower before bedtime.  We've taken a nosedive into autumn, and this week, I had to give up on walking on the track every morning so I could sleep in a little longer and hit the treadmill instead.  It's kind of depressing. 
Anyways, with that lovely introduction...last night Engrish chose Mexikhan for Grub Club.  Mexikhan is UB's first real Mexican restaurant.  Yes, Los Bandidos has been here awhile, but if you are serving curry at your restaurant you aren't a real Mexican place.  Mexikhan, on the other hand, didn't have a single Indian item on the menu.  Well, actually they were missing quite a few items on their menu - they haven't worked out all their supply issues for tortilla dishes, but that's apparently why they call it a "soft opening."  We ordered the dips for an appetizer, and the salsa and guacamole were fantastic (the black bean...meh, slightly less so), but they came served with nacho cheese Doritos.  I kinda thought they shoulda at least gone for the black bean Tostitos, but as it turns out, those have disappeared from the shelves, and this girl got the last bag of them tonight at Good Price.
Anyways, Squeaker and Blondie were having a mind-meld last night, and both ordered the taco salad, a move they were pretty happy with.  Apparently it was dee-lish.
I, on the other hand, had the chile rellenos.  I was surprised and happy to see them, and although I would have liked them to be a little bit more salty and spicy, I was pretty happy with how they turned out.
Geek ordered the chili con carne, which had about a bajillion ingredients in it, and she devoured it.  Engrish went for a chicken dish, which she kept calling po-lo instead of pollo (Canadians, eh?)

How good was the food?  This might have been the quietest Grub Club on record.  No gossiping about colleagues.  No telling stories about students.  And NO sharing food!  Normally everyone (well, not always me) asks, "Does anyone want to try a bite of this?"  Yep, not tonight.  If anyone had even looked at my chile rellenos, I might have forked them.
I had been looking forward to this place since I found out there was a Mexican place in the works.  How did I know it wasn't going to be a complete disappointment?  Because they promised to serve churros.  HELL YES.  The menu says churros y chocolat, but they also came with a caramel sauce, and thank goodness for that because the caramel sauce might have been the most amazing thing all night.  I actually cleaned the dish out with my finger after I finished the churros.  Don't judge.

I don't usually talk about service in my grub club posts, because service in Asia is usually a joke.  When you want something in a restaurant in Asia, you usually push a button or yell out for your server.  In fact, one of the more popular restaurants with expats, California's, has poor service as their constant drawback - it's hard to get the servers' attention, and they never stop by to ask how things are going.  However, you can tell that the owner of Mexikhan has worked really hard to develop this in his restaurant.  The servers were really attentive to us, and worked hard to clarify any misunderstandings due to language.  I got there a little while before my friends, and I heard him coaching his staff about what they should be doing during "down time."  He also came over and talked to us personally while we were eating. 

Mexikhan is more or less across the street from Guantanamera, except not really.  It's in the Regency apartments, which are also on the New Road, just before the bridge, but on the north side of the street.  Bring lots of money, or a friend who's flush with cash (hi, Blondie!), because it doesn't come cheap, but it's worth every tugrug!  And be sure to make a reservation - 7702 0990 is their number - because they were booked up on Friday night.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

On the Road, Off the Road

There is little I dislike more in life than pooping outdoors.  I grew up on a farm, and I can cope with it, but while 6.5 years of living in Asia has resigned me to peeing over a hole, I have yet to take a poo over a squatter.  Luckily, for me regularity means once every three days, so when I disappeared with my book into the lovely flush toilets at the Blue Wolf ger camp in Olgii, I figured I'd dodged that bullet again.
I did not poop behind these rocks, but it would have been a good place, if not for the snow.
But here's a little fact for you: nomadic families have milk running through their veins instead of blood.  Okay, not really, but the way that they put back milk tea would convince you otherwise.  Since it's rude not to drink, I've perfected the art of pretending to sip politely.  It's a double strike-out, when you're Mormon and lactose intolerant.  However, since I'm only mildly lactose intolerant, I make up for it by eating plenty of bread and cream.

Note: eat enough fresh cream, and you won't make it three days without pooping.  I'm just saying.
Not a house.  More like a barn.
Engrish, Geek, and I decided since we weren't coming back to UB until Thursday that we should get out into the countryside and take a stab at seeing Tavan Bogd, Mongolia's highest peak.  Canat, who owns the Blue Wolf, told us we could stay in tents at base camp, or go up a different valley and stay with a nomadic family near the glacier, which we would climb in order to see the mountain.  A couple of us (not to name names) were a little afraid of staying in tents up that high in October, so we went with the second option, and it's all for the best.  The snow that you see in the top photo blew in on us the second morning we were out, and we couldn't see the other side of the valley, let alone Tavan Bogd.  And from what we heard, the people who did go for the base camp all ended up staying in the same family's home - the woman we talked to said there were already 8 tourists hunkered down when she got there.

So we had a great trip, and except for eating more cream than I should, staying with families was great.  You have a little more space in a house than you do in a ger, and that's a wonderful thing.  The first family that we were with had the most laid back cat I have ever seen in my life.  Their two daughters manhandled it a LOT, and it just went along for a ride.  They also had a young goat which spent most of its time tethered to a corner of the "kitchen counter."  I'm sorry for the lack of pictures, but I kind of hate taking photos of people's homes.  I feel like it's an invasion of their personal space, and since I want to be a good guest, no pics for you.

We made the trip out there in one afternoon - leaving around noon and getting to the house just as it was getting dark.  One LONG, BUMPY afternoon.  We'd joked with Enkhe, our driver, about bringing us out here if our flight was cancelled, and he said that it would have been the Land Cruiser's last journey.  Having been over those roads now, I believe him!  Geek and Engrish seemed to fare alright, but my back was all kinds of strained and I had bruises from being jostled against the car door. We were in a Russian van that had 6 seats in the back, so we had plenty of space, and windows enough to enjoy the view.  During the journey I became convinced that whoever designed the Russian tank must have also had a hand in the design of the Russian van.  Those things are unstoppable.
Since we missed Tavan Bogd, you may be thinking that our time was wasted.  First of all, spending time in the countryside is never wasted (for me, it helps me to appreciate UB a little bit more...Engrish, on the other hand, has a more authentic appreciation for its charms).  But even if you hate fresh air and blue skies so bright they hurt to look at, you probably can't help getting excited at petroglyphs.  The petroglyphs scattered across the Altai mountains are one of Mongolia's three world heritage sites, and some are as old as 11,000 years!  You don't need to be a history teacher (Geek) or art teacher (me) to think that's fascinating!

I mentioned the Kazakh cemeteries yesterday, but I didn't mention another memorial: the anthropomorphic stone statues called balbals left behind during the Turkic era.  We read about them in Lonely Planet and Canat promised we'd be able to see one, but explaining what we wanted was a little difficult even with Engrish's mad Mongolian skills.  In the end we got there with, "It's a rock with the face of a man."  You can see our cook on the left and our driver on the right.  We weren't sure what we were getting ourselves into, hiring a cook, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions of our trip.  Jemisbek produced the most delicious meals, and I swear he must have worked with foreigners a lot, because he didn't cook a single thing that we were hesitant to eat.  The pinnacle of our experience was besbarmak, or Five Fingers (because that's how you are supposed to eat it), a Kazakh dish of boiled mutton, potatoes, carrots, and this scrumptious steamed long pastry-ish roll thing that had cabbage and onion inside.  The last day of our trip, after our world class driver took us through a pretty strong river, we stopped by the river and had a picnic, with the food - which was delicious - cooked on the spot by Jemisbek. 
Total inclusive cost for the three of us out in the countryside: $550.  That included our driver, our gas, our cook and food, the border permits, some money for the families with whom we stayed, and I'm sure something else I'm forgetting.

Total value of being intrepid, outdoor-pooping explorers: priceless.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

More Kazakh than Kazakhstan

Before I took the job here in Mongolia, I was very interested in a trilingual school system in Kazakhstan, the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools.  Besides being a great opportunity, I was intrigued by Kazakhstan, which I was passing familiar with from reading (at that point - I watched it soon after) The Long Way Round.  When I mentioned it to my colleague in Shanghai, Iron Man, he asked, "Isn't that where Borat was from?"  >sigh<  ...PE teachers...
Yes, Borat was from Kazakhstan, but don't believe everything you see in movies.  Kazakhstan is a central Asian country, formerly part of the USSR, with a rich heritage, but the best place to experience their culture isn't Kazakhstan; it's Bayan-Olgii.  Chalk it up to the fact that Mongolia under communism wasn't as hard on culture as the Mother-Russian' Soviets.  After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, a fair number of Kazakhs repatriated, but there are still plenty of them in Bayan-Olgii province. 

In fact, it hardly feels like part of Mongolia.  To start with, there are the gers....or, technically, yurts, although we were never able to get ourselves to call them that.  On the outside, they're taller and pointier.  And on the inside, they are even more colorful than Mongolian gers.  Kazakhs are famous for their beautiful, hand embroidery, and the tapestries that deck the...walls?...of their yurts are truly works of art.  I've been eyeing the tapestries and bags sold at Mary and Martha in town, but have been holding back since I knew I'd be going to the Eagle Festival this year.

(Note to anyone who might be interested in going - you can get a MUCH better deal buying them at the source.  Mary and Martha is a fair trade shop, and that's wonderful, but they are still there to make money.  If you are going anyways, do yourself a favor and save some money by eliminating the middle man!)

I ended up coming home with a new purse, a long, embroidered jacket with fox fur cuffs and collar, and a long, narrow antique piece that was honestly probably once on a pair of eagle hunter's pants.  Engrish, I think, came back with even more, although her vest was not quite as "dope yolo swag" (as my students would say) as my coat, on account of lacking kick-ass fox fur.
Oh, and the clothes!  I hope you've gotten a little bit of an idea of what the Kazakh style of dress is like, based on my last two posts.  Today on our way to the orphanage, we were passed by a Mongolian on a horse in his deel, and it seemed strange again, for a moment.  For a year I've been around men and women who wear Mongolian dress all the time - not just for special occasions - but after six days away it took me by surprise.  That's how different the clothing styles are.

I wish I'd taken more photos of Olgii itself, because it looks SO different from the towns in Central Mongolia.  Homes in Bayan-Olgii have flat roofs, and I don't know what it was, but they definitely had a kind of middle eastern feel to them.  Or so I thought, at any rate...Geek, being a veteran of Kuwait, might have disagreed (I didn't ask her because I was afraid of sounding like a moron.  OBVIOUSLY better to introduce this idea on a blog where the internet's anonymity allows people to be MUCH more bitchy!)

It is possible this is a connection I made up in my head, based on the fact that Kazakhs are traditionally Muslim.  Regardless of whether or not your friendly, neighborhood art teacher saw architectural similarities that weren't there, one thing Bayan-Olgii did have in common with my former host countries of Bahrain and the Emirates are its mosques.  Islamic ephemera doesn't give me nearly as many warm fuzzies as anything Korean, but I was hoping to hear the call to prayer, because I've always found something hauntingly beautiful about its sound.  I didn't hear it, but Engrish did, early one morning.
The change from monastery to mosque wasn't the only change in the scenery - we were also hard-pressed to find any ovoos, the stone cairns decorated with colorful silk scarves.  As we topped a pass going into the countryside on our third day, Engrish pointed out that any other place in Mongolia would have one in that precise location.  But not in Bayan-Olgii.  We did see one, and there was another marker that looked more Tibetan to me, with prayer flags tied onto a branch broken off from a tree, but these were few and far between.  Instead, the landscapes were dotted with cemeteries, which would be an oddity elsewhere in Mongolia.  Until the rise of communism, Mongolians typically put their dead to "rest" with sky burials, which means that they chopped up the body and left them on the mountains for animals to eat.  If birds came to feast, it was a sign that you were karmically ascending closer to nirvana.  On the other hand, being eaten by land creatures - dogs, for instance - was a bad sign (I think the whole concept would be a great way to get rid of a body if you murdered someone, which made Geek pretty uncomfortable until I pointed out that murdering her would NOT make me a very good role model for my students). 
Kazakhs, on the other hand, are (as I mentioned) good Muslims, which means they bury bodies with all the necessary rites.  And THAT means cemeteries to stop by and look at while driving hours on end through the countryside.  Speaking of which, you have one last blog to look forward to about Bayan-Olgii, and that's our trip into the countryside to see the "roof of Mongolia."  'Til then....

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Who's Got Your Goat?

The afternoon of the Eagle Festival we had the chance to learn about a sport I'd heard of, but never seen.  Khaled Hosseini mentions it in The Kite Runner, and later in our trip, I read its name again in And the Mountains Echoed.  It's a popular sport in Central Asia (don't know your geography?  Central Asia is all the 'Stans), but it sounds barbaric.  It's called buzkashi.
It began with the players racing out onto the field on their horses, looping around the goals, and coming to the middle to trade handshakes or high fives in a show of sportsmanship.  A referee came out (on horse, of course!) and threw a decapitated, legless goat corpse on the field.  Yep, you read that right: headless, legless carcass.  Told you it sounded barbaric. 
The object of the game is to race over to the goat carcass and pick it up from the ground without getting off your horse, then race to the end of the field and fling it into the goal - a tower-like structure with a hollow in the top of it.  Sounds simple enough, if you like defying death, but retrieving the carcass from the ground is not the most difficult part (as hard as that may be to believe).  This year, the game was played between teams, whereas in years past it had been played by individuals. This means that even though you may risk your life picking up the goat, odds are highly unlikely that you will keep it long enough to put it in the goal, because a whole team of riders are going to be wrestling you for it, earning it the name of "tug-o-war with a goat carcass," which is how it's typically described to foreigners.

We were watching the teams from Sagsai Sum (a sum is, to the best of my knowledge, kind of like a county) and another sum, maybe Tsengel but don't quote me on that.  The local crowd was, of course, quite into it, but I was still surprised by how quickly Engrish and I got excited about it, and started cheering for the players ("Knock him off his horse!" might have been heard from us at one point).  But then, it is a sport you need to keep an eye on.  You stand at the sides of the field, and there is nothing separating you from the action.  Which means that you may find yourself in the path of a stampede of distracted horses and riders...and we did, several times throughout the afternoon.  Engrish almost peed her pants one time!
There was also a kind of a half-time show.  This was a race around the field.  The woman has a yellow handkerchief attached to her shoulder, which the man has to snatch off of her.  If he succeeds, she has to catch up to him and hit him with her whip.  In the background, you can see the buzkashi goal.
This was the lady who served us lunch earlier in the afternoon, and there were several other women who took part in this sport.  It was amazing to see them ride in their beautiful clothing.  I can't stress enough how awesome the Eagle Festival was.  It's going to be a hard one to top, whether I'm here for an extra year or not!

Fly Like An Eagle

As much as I loved Pamukkale, Turkish food was not and never will be the highlight of a trip to Bayan-Olgii.  That honor goes to the eagles.

The eagles were not the only thing going on out in this valley eastward from Olgii last weekend, but they are so amazing that they deserve their own post.  I took a LOT of photos of them, because they really were that cool.  It is hard to stop yourself.  And it's not just because of the birds - the Kazakh hunters (yes, Kazakhs in Mongolia - we'll get to that in my next post or two) are equally stunning.  Engrish asked me when we were walking around if I could tell the difference between the Mongolians and Kazakhs, and I could.  When she asked me which I found was more attractive, I had to go with the Mongolians, but the an artist, there is something so visually compelling about their weathered faces, their light colored eyes... 
On the trip out to the valley we drove past several groups of hunters riding out.  During the festival there are contests between them - calling their eagles down from the mountain.  On Saturday they were supposed to have come to the hunters' arms, but since our flight was delayed all damn day we missed that.  Sunday, on the other hand, the hunter rigged a sort of fox skin that they dragged behind their horse for the eagle to catch.  Some of them did better than others.  We saw some pretty sweet dives, and it was amazing to see how fast they flew.  Some of the eagles, when released, did a nice lazy circle around the spectators, or flew back over the mountain (they're well-trained, so I'm assuming they came back eventually).  And then there was this:
That guy is not nearly terrified enough.  A couple weeks back I stumbled on an article about footage from a camera on a Russian wildlife preserve.  It was there for the Siberian tigers, but it caught footage instead of a golden eagle taking down a deer.  That is how powerful these birds are.  In eagle hunting, they simply run down the prey and their hunter comes to club the animals, but they are more than capable on their own.  Well, friends of Engrish were telling us about the first day of the festival, and how a guy was climbing up the hillside where he wasn't supposed to be, and that one of the eagles attacked him, rather than flying to his hunter.  Mostly we didn't feel like we'd missed out on too much because of our delay, but that would have been classic.  We had barely finished talking about it when suddenly, one of the eagles swooped down ON THE SAME MAN!  We had no way to tell if it was the same eagle, but the fact that the guy got attacked twice over the weekend maybe ought to tell him something.  My takeaway is that if you look like an old, slow member of the "herd" (us spectators), you should not isolate yourself around predators.  Shit's gonna get real.
The eagles were everywhere.  This is the ger where Engrish, Geek, and myself stopped for khuushuur around noon.  This beauty was sitting there, patiently waiting.  I held a golden eagle when we were in Terelj at the end of summer, and they're heavy, so it's not surprising to see one parked in a ger...on a Kazakh carpet for sale...on the back of a motorcycle...
If you look closely at this man's arm, in fact, you will see a wooden prop.  This helps the hunters to hold up their arms for their eagles to perch on.  Looking at the hunters, I got the feeling that they weren't dressed up for the festival.  These were their working clothes.  Engrish, Geek, and I bought some antique Kazakh embroidery for wall-hangings, and as we watched the hunters, we began to suspect that our beautiful tapestries may have come off the legs of some hunters' pants, and that made me laugh to think of it.  They must think we tourists are crazy - spending so much money on their old, battered pieces - while gladly pocketing the money and making new clothing and tapestries with bright and beautiful colors.
The Eagle Festival has become my favorite thing I've done in Mongolia.  Get yourself out there the first weekend next October.  If waiting that long is too hard, hunting season is about to begin, and there are groups that run tours in which you travel with the hunters.  They don't always bring down prey, so be sure you go for the journey, not the destination (so to speak), and bring your long underwear because it gets pretty cold.

Grub on the Road: Pamukkale

There are lots of ways I could begin writing about my trip last weekend.  I could tell you about our hellish trip there (after telling Engrish we needed to be at the airport at 4:30 a.m. for our 6:30 flight, AeroMongolia didn't actually show up to check us in til 1:15 that afternoon - the departure time just kept sliding backwards, but never far enough at once to let us run back into town for Engrish's sleeping bag or the Cinnabons I should have bought the night before).  I could jump to the chase and show you lots of cool photos from the Eagle Festival, which was awesome, even if we missed the first day of it thanks to our shitty trip.  I could apologize...I totally dropped the ball last weekend.  I meant to write a ghost post to tide you over til I got back from Olgii, but last week kind of got away from me.  Hell, the last seven weeks kinda got away from me, and that's a good thing (time slowing down is a Bad Sign).
But it's Thursday, so let me start - at the beginning, as it were - with a Grub Club sorta post.  Out in the back of beyond is probably the last place you expect to find amazing food but Pamukkale Turkish Restaurant is exactly that (on both accounts).  I'd read about it in Lonely Planet - it stuck in my head because not only do I love Turkish food, Pamukkale is one of the reasons I want to go back to Turkey at some point - and Engrish and Geek were so shell-shocked by our hellish day that they would have followed me just about anywhere.
(You can tell Geek is shell-shocked because she's trying to produce some cleavage.  Poor thing.)  The place was jam-packed with tourists, but we got a table immediately anyways.  Possibly due to pity for Geek's lack of cleavage (just kidding - the servers were all female, although the owner was one helluva gorgeous Turkish guy).
The salad was a fantastic way to start.  After a day of sitting in the airport eating Pringles, granola bars, and spicy nut mix, fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and onions in a salty, olive oil dressing were like manna from Heaven.  We devoured that sucker, and kept the juices to soak up with our bread.
It was my heart's greatest desire to have a nice plate of doner kebab.  That desire was unfulfilled - doner wasn't even on the menu - so I went for the adana kebab (the first time.  We went back to Pamukkale two more times before leaving Olgii this morning).  The meat was juicy and tender and perfectly seasoned.  I wanted to order it again the next night, but Geek told me I had to try something new.
The pirzola kebab looked good to Engrish, so she went with it.  I'd never had it before - it's a very thin piece of meat attached to a small piece of bone wrapped in foil.  It was just a little spicy, and although I have no idea what part of which animal it came from, it was gorgeous.  The third time we were there, Engrish ordered it again.  And I finally got another adana, whereas...
Geek got the grilled chicken for the second time that night.  On our first night she decided it looked promising, and she was right.  In fact, when we ran into Engrish's friends, Craig and Sara (along with an American named Henry who randomly struck up a conversation with me...who says I can't make friends?), having dinner there after the festival, they said they always go for this dish or the shish kebab (which I tried that night, and it was equally delectable).

They had desserts, too, and we tried them.  I had the same honey-soaked slice of nirvana all three nights.  Based on my success with it, Geek and Engrish ordered other cakes our second time, with varying degrees of success, none of them approaching the cake I ordered.  Engrish tried the Turkish coffee, too, and enjoyed it, while Geek and I went with coke.  If you make it to Olgii for the Eagle Festival - or hell, for any other reason - you really do have to check it out.  I haven't even had Turkish food this delicious in UB.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Grub Club Double Header: Xinjiang and Jazz

I was not the best scholar before I moved to China.  I knew it was communist, following dynasties of imperial reigns, but I didn't understand how diverse its people were, or how being united as one nation effected them, other than Tibet.  In fact, the first time I heard about Xinjiang Province was our first Christmas party at SUIS, at which I did not behave particularly well, but I DID enjoy the food.  I'd seen Uyghur (that's what you call the people who live in Xinjiang) restaurants, but had mistaken them for middle eastern restaurants because of the Arabic writing and the crescent moon motifs.  Well, Xinjiang Province is largely Muslim.  It wasn't until last spring - after living there for two years and consequently learning more about China and communism - that I started to wonder what that meant for the Uyghurs.  I found myself asking Michael Quinn why they hadn't been persecuted like the Tibetans had.  He managed to avoid rolling his eyes at me as he explained that of course they had.  Unfortunately for them, Muslims just aren't as loveable as Buddhists, and they don't have a political figurehead like the Dalai Lama for people to rally behind.
Well, if you missed it amongst all that verbal diarrhea, I liked Xinjiang food when I tried it.  In fact, I think it is the most delicious of all Chinese cuisines.  So I was pretty excited when I saw Xinjiang restaurant, a place near the state department store.  And I have been waiting to bring people here for grub club ever since, but Xinjiang Restaurant was a disappointment.  It really didn't have much that remotely resembled Xinjiang cuisine.  We tried to order some little baked dumplings, but they were bahkwei.  The skewers were also bahkwei, and if there's one thing that shouts Xinjiang to me, it's meat skewers.  So instead we ended up having peanuts and cucumbers, which are a standard at Chinese restaurants around here.  The beef "salad" is different, but while it was tasty and spicy, again, I've never seen anything like it at a Xinjiang restaurant.
Blondie went with her standard, chicken with peanuts.  It was not the kung pao chicken we've come to expect when ordering "chicken with peanuts."  It was actually sweet.  Ugh, what's up with that?!?
Engrish went for a pepper beef dish.  I think this might have been my favorite dish, but the beef was kind of chewy.  And at least it was beef...that was one "authentic" thing about this so-called Xinjiang place - they didn't serve pork.  Or, come to think of it, alcohol, in spite of the fact that it's not the first of the month.  If I'd been more prepared, I could have emptied my final tiny bottle.
The other contender for best dish was this - garlicky spinach thing?  It was savory, and you can never go wrong with garlic.
The one item that we were actually able to order that was almost authentic was the noodles.  They came with some tough mutton, not lamb, and didn't have peppers as advertised, but hey, the noodles were handmade.  And very, very long.  Anyways, this was the worst fail so far this year - Coach gave it a 1 overall, but he was being a dick - which means I now hold both the highest and lowest score for grub club this year.  Go me!

Afterwards we went out.  The Giant Steppes of Jazz is back, and while we'll miss the big gala concert while we're out west in Olgii, we got to see a performance at school yesterday, and decided to see an encore after grub club, since the UB Jazz Club is hosting performances each night.  The concert at school was AMAZING.  The musicians were SO talented, and included one big Hawaiian percussionist who had an awesome sense of rhythm - as it got toward the end of the concert, he actually stood up to play and was dancing around the stage as he switched from maracas to tambourine to other instruments we didn't even have names for.  They played some jazz standards, but infused them with Cuban flair.  One of my amazing homeroom students from last year was nodding his head to the beat for the entire concert.  Maybe so was I.

The combo we saw at the club last night was....ugh.  They were trying to do something clever, I think - their singer was a guy, but they were covering songs that were originally sung by women, and it didn't work out well for them.  The cover (or "tax," as they call it here) was 15,000 and included a cocktail, which we all thought we could choose, but it turned out we had to pay for the drinks we ordered, as we were served a 7&7 - some gin and 7-up thing?  Blondie got an extra one since I couldn't have mine.  And it took forever for them to actually get playing - it was 10 til 10 before they started, 20 minutes after Engrish left the building.  However, I finally got the 2nd edition of ASU Apples to Apples printed and so we ended up playing a couple rounds and being totally obnoxious while we waited, so it wasn't a total loss.